Perceiving Film: The Cinematic Rorschach Test

rorschach The Secret of Roan InishWe’ve been talking a lot about favourite films recently. Were I to make a list, John Sayles’ 1994 movie The Secret of Roan Inish would rank fairly high. But if you want to discuss and analyse that movie, you would find me useless. I’ve seen it once, and though “never” is a long time away, I strongly suspect I will never watch it again.

I saw Roan Inish at a particularly difficult time in my life and I found its themes of redemption and timelessness extremely comforting. It is possible that the movie does not even contain those themes. I was not in a position to analyse it when I watched. But that is how I remember it. If you want to be a student of film, I don’t suppose you can afford to have very many Roan Inishes in your memory bank. You have to be willing to look back and reconsider everything. But I am claiming this as a one-time exception.

One of the great things about a movie (or a painting, or a poem) is its immutability. It is a record of a specific moment in time and it does not change. But our impression of it may change drastically and often. Sometimes, historical event and perspective change how we view the film. It’s hard not to think about the KKK when watching Birth of a Nation (1915), just as it’s hard not to think of John Hinckley, Jr. when watching Taxi Driver (1976). But far more often, our changing opinion has nothing to do with history. It has to do with us. In his first movie, Permanent Vacation (1980), Jim Jarmusch has actor Frankie Faison tell a story built around the Doppler Effect, the way in which we perceive sound to have changed based on our relative position when experiencing it. You can consider movies subject to the same Doppler Effect phenomenon. I choose to consider them ideal Rorschach Tests.

In my youth, I watched a lot of bad television with an uncritical eye. My favourite show for a time was the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry spoof Get Smart (1965-1970). To my eight year old eyes, nothing could be better. But when I watched it again as an adult, I was disappointed by how thin the actual satire seemed. It will always be funny, but I now see little else of interest. On the other hand, when I re-watched Green Acres (1965-1971), a sitcom which I never held in high esteem as a child, I was amazed by the level of absurdity and plethora of extraordinary supporting characters. Paul Henning, its creator, does not merit a place alongside Mel Brooks, but on this one program, I find him significantly more interesting. Is this because Green Acres is intrinsically better than Get Smart, or is it because at one point in my life I was more drawn to stories of individual heroes (Maxwell Smart) and at a later point, I valued the community (Hooterville) more highly?

rorschach the mortal stormWhen I was younger, I would have argued ‘til blue that Oliver Stone was a superior filmmaker to Frank Borzage. Today, I would do the exact opposite, though, at this stage, my doctor has cautioned me about doing anything ‘til blue. At one point in my life, Borzage seemed very boring. He was romantic and I was cynical. I felt much more at home with Stone’s high-gloss conspiracies. Today, I find myself much more in tune with the questions of faith raised by Borzage than by the questions of politics raised by Stone. Neither The Mortal Storm (1940) nor JFK (1991) has changed. I have changed.

I came to the films of Michaelangelo Antonioni as a teenager and found them virtually unbearable. Ten years later, L’Avventura (1960) was one of my favourite films. Another ten years pass, and though I still hold it in high regard, L’Avventura begins to strike me as pretentious. Meanwhile, The Passenger (1975), one of the movies that so befuddled my teenage eyes, grows larger and larger in my thoughts. Both films address the unknowable. In L’Avventura, the mystery grows up around the impossibility of genuine human relationships. The Passenger examines man’s identity, and his capacity to truly know, and consequently, reinvent, himself. Antonioni relegated what was essentially the main plot question of the earlier film – the search for a missing romantic partner – to the subplot of the later film. Was it because as he aged, the issue of identity intrigued him more than the issue of romantic relationship? I can never know that, but I can identify a similar impulse in myself.

I do not mean to suggest that there are no standards by which we can judge movies over a long period of time. Of course there are. I only wish to point out that in any relationship between a viewer and an object being viewed, there are two parties present. In the world of film (restoration, colorisation, director’s cuts notwithstanding) only one of those elements is subject to radical change, and those who would seek to analyse should bear that in mind.

One final example: There are times in all of our lives when our primary concern is to understand how we fit into a romantic relationship. There are other times when we focus on how we fit into a community. There are times when we ponder how we function professionally. I can chart my own biorhythms based on which of these Woody Allen movies I rank higher: Annie Hall (1977), Radio Days (1987), or Deconstructing Harry (1997). FYI, right now, I would state categorically that Radio Days is the best movie Woody Allen has ever made. In fact, I think I will watch it again tonight. But I will not seek out Roan Inish. I will leave that particular Rorschach locked away on an Irish Isle somewhere deep in memory.


Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

16 thoughts on “Perceiving Film: The Cinematic Rorschach Test

  1. Really enjoyed this article – very perceptive and self-aware and appropriate for Curnblog! It takes courage, in a strange way, to admit that your tastes might change over time, and that what once might have seemed wrong to you no longer does. As for me, when I watched “American Psycho” for the first time 4 years ago, I absolutely hated it and thought it was once of the worst films I’d ever seen. Re-watched it a couple of months ago and found the satire spot-on. A perfect example of how the movie hadn’t changed, but I had immensely.

    • Thanks Alina. Lumet’s Network sort of works for me the way American Psycho works for you. I remember not liking it much when I first saw it. Now I marvel at how prescient it was.

    • Thanks for a very useful link, Bill. When I was in college, we did not have a film department. Film classes were housed in the Semiotics Department, and as such, I remember hearing of Louise Rosenblatt. I recall John Dewey more, but I am largely ignorant on both. Her idea of transactional relationship seems very applicable to the film experience. The only difference which occurs to me immediately is the way in which reading has almost always been a solitary action while film, until fairly recently, was communal. I suppose when viewing something with a community, you have the potential to bring a much wider range of responses to the experience. Today, it can still be communal, or it can be solitary, or it can be interactive, and probably other things that don’t occur to me.

  2. there is an inexplicable beauty about remembering a film (and not being able to recall it fully). it is a mixture of all the senses that the film leaves with you plus the way you were at the point of watching. once you see it a second time, this feeling is lost. but a different one replaces it.

    • I suppose that artists all come to terms with the fact that they give up a certain degree of custody of their own work the moment they expose it to an audience. It grows into something new when it is perceived by different eyes. I probably would have said that even if I didn’t just finish seeing Jim Jarmusch’s new movie, but that appears to be one of his recurring themes, so it’s very fresh in my mind. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Awesome post. How is it I missed Radio Days? I ♥ Woody and find his sense of humor and curious scripts inspiring. Jon, I liked the part where you explain the emotional connection to a film based upon one’s current mood or time of life. It is a truth, for sure, and why we all have our reactions to films regardless whether the critic pans it or approves.

    • Thanks Cindy. I think Radio Days may be the warmest movie he ever made. I tcame in that impressive run in the mid ’80s including Hannah and Her Sisters and Purple Rose of Cairo. Well worth watching, even if you ultimately don’t rate it quite as high as I do.

  4. >But if you want to discuss and analyse that movie, you would find me useless. I’ve seen it once, and though “never” is a long time away, I strongly suspect I will never watch it again.<

    Indeed–that is me with Iris, Richard Eyre's film from 2001. Every time I bring it up I get someone else telling me it's not nearly as good a movie as I remember it being. I'm guessing this is a case of "if there are ten people in the room and you can't find the village idiot", but that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

    A lot of stuff I adored as a teen/pre-teen (when I was more schooled in the art of sneaking into theaters) I've gone back and watched in more recent years and found…wanting. (I snuck into, if memory serves, four different theaters fifteen separate times over a month-long span to see Deathsport as many times as I could. Watched it again 2012ish, and it's just horrible.) On the other hand, it's kind of worth it to go back and revisit something like Hard Rock Zombies, which I loved in 1985 because "oh hey, metal! and the living dead!", and find so much more beneath the surface that my high-school-aged brain had no reference points to process, like all the WW2 satire in the last quarter of the film.

    Still haven't seen Roan Inish, despite my enduring love for John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet was one I saw four or five times on the big screen, though by then I was willing to shell out the–shocking!–$3.25 for a ticket every time I went to the theater. And another two bucks for popcorn. HIGHWAY ROBBERY). I will have to change that soon.

    • Thanks Robert. I saw Amour several years after I watched my parents go through their own version of that story. It affected me quite a bit, and I wonder how it would have affected me differently had I seen it before they went through their end-of-life illnesses, or seen it right in the middle of all that. I suspect with movies like Amour or Iris, some audience members are going to have very intense personal associations with the subject matter, while many others will consider it at more of a distance.

      I saw a matinee today for $7.50. Bottle of water — $4.00. At least I split that.

  5. I have never seen Roan Inish. From what you say, it has a personal and private connection. That got me thinking about some films that have a similar effect on me. You have given us a more thoughtful take on my recent ‘anti-list’ article Jon, though touching on some of the reasons that were on my mind at the time of writing.
    Films that we love should bear re-visiting, sometimes even annual viewing. It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily good films, or even well-made films, just that we like them for personal reasons. I have been inspired by this piece, to think about films that I always considered to be good, even great, but may not stand up to the older me. On careful reflection, they might turn out to not be very good at all.
    I will get back to you with those.
    Thanks for a nice article. It got me thinking. Always good to think.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. It may not come as a surprise that this essay began as a comment on your previous post. It wasn’t going to be about the pros and cons of lists, which I think you and your many commenters covered quite well. It was in reaction to the number of people who noted that their lists hadn’t changed over the years. I suppose it’s possible that had I a list, it wouldn’t change much either, but I also know that my opinion about many individual titles change all the time, (sometimes by the hour). I think maybe the ones we consider to be the very best are more immune from such fluctuation. But I suppose I’m thinking more of the “others” of the world. Anyway, thanks for the conversation. I for one would be very interested in your reevaluation of older favorites.

  6. Lovely article, Jon–it really captures the subjectivity of film and the moment in which we judge it. As a silly, tangential aside, I used to consider Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon version of The Lord of the Rings definitive. Now, in the wake of Peter Jackson’s masterpieces, I wonder what in the name of Sauron I was thinking! Perhaps I should review Blow-Up; I had a similar perception about Antonioni as you, and I’m wondering if that has changed. Certainly, time heals all cinematic wounds. 😀

  7. Haven’t seen Roan irish for years, not sure how it would stand up now. But interesting to think back on why it worked at the time. I write my reviews from memory, only cross-checking before I publish; I like to remember why the film entertained me at the time, and work on the principle that if I can’t remember something about a film, then it’s not worth remembering. The opening joke in Radio Days, about the furniture thieves, will stay with me forever.

    • When I was younger, I used to write things a lot based on memory. Then, one day, I was going to write a piece on the Coen Brothers. I decided to re-watch their first three movies, which I remembered enjoying quite a bit. Halfway through Blood Simple, I realized that the movie I was recalling as Blood Simple was not the movie I was watching. (I think I was recalling some conflation of Blood Simple and the Dahl Brothers’ Red Rock West.) That was very distressing. Fortunately, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing turned out to be the right movies. I agree that if a movie doesn’t stay in my memory at all, it probably is a sign that I didn’t think much of it. I just wish I trusted my memory more. Thanks for the comment.

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