Craig Zobel’s brilliant film, Compliance, became available on DVD this week. The film earned a harsh reaction from portions of the audience during its theater run. Occasional viewers were unable to suspend their disbelief over a story that is, in fact, true. Many audience members were so repulsed that they actually walked out. It’s clear to see that this film makes viewers feel uncomfortable, like thousands of films before it. There’s obviously a line that filmmakers toe when they attempt to elicit this response amongst audiences. Where is that line?
By attending a film, audiences enter into an immersive experience. Film acts upon the conscious mind in far more direct ways than any other art form. The theater is dark, all attention is paid to the screen, and filmmakers employ dialogue, visuals, music and on-camera sound, and thousands of other tricks to make their vision translate to the audience. And the audience, in turn, is sucked into that world, easily prodded along the path that the filmmaker chooses. Buy the ticket, take the ride. It’s the unspoken contract that filmmakers and filmgoers honor between one another.
This process gives the filmmaker a lot of power to shape the audience’s experiences. And, in the case of films like Compliance, that power may be used to make audiences feel extremely uncomfortable. This reaction can be elicited through a variety of means. Immoral behavior, violence, gore, and gross-out humor all come to mind. In the case of dirty genius bastards like Alfred Hitchcock, it’s a matter of using subtle queues to elicit a feeling of unease, usually leading up to a knockout punch that’s more direct.
When, exactly, is it ok for a filmmaker to wield this power? A few obvious answers come to mind. First, if a filmmaker has a broader statement to make, it’s perfectly acceptable to make an audience squirm emotionally. Continuing with our example du jour, Compliance, it was part of a broader statement about just how far people are willing to go if they trust another person as an authority figure. It was the classic Milgram experiment.
Another case where a filmmaker is justified in making an audience feel uncomfortable is when it involves artistic vision. Requiem for a Dream (2000) is an extraordinarily uncomfortable film to watch. But it’s part of Aronofsky’s larger vision, a totality of drug-related despair made more real by the shaky cam, the snorricam, and several other techniques.
The art of making an audience feel uncomfortable starts to tread on thin ice when it’s used to set up horror, although this can be a justifiable excuse. The problem is that audiences are prepared for it when watching a horror film. They know going in that there’s a high likelihood that they’ll see or hear something that will make them feel uneasy. This, of course, dampens the feeling of unease, and the filmmaker doesn’t acquire the intended response. And in the end, the filmmaker did something seemingly edgy that comes off as showy or gratuitous.
The real thin line is in the execution. Any filmmaker can put shocking content in their film in the interest of eliciting unease. But it’s completely ineffective, and moot, if it’s executed clumsily. If there’s not a proper set-up with character development, then audiences have little reason to care about what’s happening on the screen, no matter how shocking. They won’t be able to inculcate the behavior. The same goes for poor acting, awkward foley cues, disruptive plot sequences, and unbelievability. No matter the filmmakers artistic vision or grand statement, it’s all meaningless if the audience is taken out of the experience by poor filmmaking. Ultimately, when an audience reacts negatively to uneasy feelings brewed in a theater, they’re saying, “I can’t relate to this at all.”
What do you think? When does a filmmaker cross the line?