Subjectivity and Objectivity in Film: Kagemusha, Booze and the Boundaries of Cinema

KagemushaThere’s a great scene in the Kurosawa movie Kagemusha (1980) where two of the three unifiers of Japan, Oda Nobunaga and Ieyasu Tokugawa, meet to discuss business. Nobunaga, who has been Westernised all the way down to his armour, offers Tokugawa a glass of European wine. His comrade takes it and has a sip … then makes a face. Nobunaga laughs, then gulps it with relish.

I like this scene a lot, as it says much more to me than the humour it superficially suggests. Something normal and appealing to one person may be exotic and distasteful to another, even if it’s something as seemingly innocuous as grape wine. That’s how I feel about a variety of well-regarded movies, ranging from Preminger’s Laura (1944) to Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) to Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). I find them outside my taste spectrum, never to fall upon it. I’ve never liked them and I never will.

Am I wrong for caring so little for these pictures? They are critically appreciated. And I know they’re seminal in a way. Yet I can’t bring myself to enjoy them.

Granted, Blow-Up is tricky. David Hemmings’ photographer protagonist is not easy to like, and the flashiness of the production can be a little grating. I wonder, however, if this wears on me more than it should. I’d much rather revisit a less profound Swingin’ Sixties film such as Georgy Girl (1966) than Blow-Up. It’s just more accessible and closer to my sensibilities, despite the similarities in style. It’s the warm sake to Blow-Up’s Bordeaux.

I’ve often been in the minority when it comes to critical appreciation. I hate Nixon (1995) with a passion, as I find it tedious and showy. I’m no fan of Titanic (1997). And I really, really despise Gone With the Wind (1939), which is perhaps one of the most alien of all pictures in its outdated, offensive social perspective, as well as a soapy tangle that I never have the patience to unravel. So I do tend to go against the grain in my cinema tastes, despite a predilection toward Kurosawan jidai-geki and Eisenstein-esque montage.

What does this mean? Can taste actually be subjective? If it is, how does one determine whether a movie is actually good? Can one prefer sake over wine and still be right?

Kagemusha Gone with the WindI think so. As long as there’s the recognition of the effects of a picture rather than its quality, it can be copacetic.

For example: Gone With the Wind is a seminal film. I understand that. It’s had an incredible impact on American culture. And there’s one brilliant shot in it: the scene of the Confederate dead and wounded, an expanse similar to the shot of the battlefield’s aftermath in Eisenstein’s earlier Alexander Nevsky (1938). Despite all of this, however, GWtW remains junk, in my opinion – unpalatable and abrasive. Popular, but junky. I’ll never see it otherwise.

I’m going to draw the line at Nixon, which doesn’t, I think, make any significant impact on the American fabric, though Titanic is a different animal – one of the most popular pictures of all time. Laura I respect for its Hitchcockian sensibilities, and it’s a unique film in its slick look and the quality of its suspense. Then there’s Blow-Up, which gave us new ways to look at nothing (as well as onscreen nudity).

Perhaps this conundrum is best expressed in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975): “Subjectivity is objective.”

I think there’s a tendency these days to throw around words such as “genius” when describing artists or performers. But I do believe that the recognition of the appeal of something can be apparent, though the appeal itself may be fugitive. There is definitely subjectivity in taste, as there is objectivity in quality, just as there are people who like sake over wine and vice versa. You can’t be wrong for having one preference over another. There should be boundaries, however, and defining those is the hard part.

Were those boundaries apparent in that scene in Kagemusha? Maybe not … though the important thing was that they came together to have a drink.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

7 thoughts on “Subjectivity and Objectivity in Film: Kagemusha, Booze and the Boundaries of Cinema

  1. When i recommend a film to my friends or on my blog, i never make an attempt to hide that my opnion of the film is based completely on my subjective tastes.

    The biggest example is how i rated “The Phantom Menace” higher than “A New Hope”, and honestly i would rather spend time watching the former over the latter. I myself was conflicted over my ratings as you are with “Gone with the Wind”, as to deny “A New Hope’s” importance and strengths is to be blind to what makes a good movie in the first place.

    But in the end i just couldn’t lie to myself and give into popular opinion about the film. My tastes were too coloured by previous experiences, much like how Tokugawa didn’t like the taste of wine for whatever reason whereas Oda could.

    my two cents on the question you posed would simply be to say be honest with yourself, and defend your opinion and feelings honestly. While it would be wrong to deny a film like “Gone with the Wind’s” impact and influence, ultimately you have a right not to like it.

  2. Someone else who hates both Blow-Up and Gone with the Wind as much as I do. I cannot even begin to tell you how absurdly grateful I was to read this. (My less-profound sixties movie of choice is usually Lord Love a Duck. I see something new in it every time I watch it.)
    Just saw Kagemusha for the first time a few months ago. I’m still torn on it. I’ve never been much of one for Kurosawa’s massive costume dramas; I adore Ikiru, and Dersu Uzala is absorbing, but you get into the cast-of-thousands efforts and i get kind of lost. But the cinematography is something else, as usual, and there are some great storylines running through there. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud during a Kurosawa film before. (The first meeting of the warlords.) Man, what do I do with this one?
    (I still have not found an acceptable substitute for GWtW. I suspect it may be All Quiet on the Western Front, if I ever get round to watching it. I had resolved to do so last week, but I have a dead video card.)

    • Thanks, Robert. I definitely feel that Kagemusha, for all of its excellence, does have some issues–a sometimes bombastic score is one, I believe, and the film is somewhat detached, with few close-ups providing an often-cold feeling. Still, I love many scenes in the film, particularly the wine sequence … as well as one in which the Westernized Oda Nobunaga does a traditional Japanese dance to express how he feels about Shingen’s death.

      It’s funny–Ikiru is (to use Jon’s words) a film that I respect more than I like, though I’m definitely in the minority. (I prefer Kurosawa’s jidai-geki to his contemporary dramas.) I would definitely agree with you that All Quiet on the Western Front would be a more than acceptable substitute for Gone With the Wind — it’s certainly a greater film and just as seminal, if not more so, I think.

  3. Simon, you’ve given me a rationale for not feeling guilty every time I say “I respect that movie more than I like it” and for that, I am grateful. I don’t think taste and quality are totally separate, since our designation of quality is at its core a consensus opinion about how a work of art affects each of its multitude of viewers. But what I think you’ve identified is that within any consensus, there are going to be lots of valid contrarian opinions, and we all need to cut some slack to those who see things differently. BTW, I agree with most of your thoughts on individual movies here.

    • Thanks, Jon. Yes, I think the ability to respect a movie more than you like it can be worn on the sleeve with pride. And I agree with your assertion that taste and quality aren’t totally separate … an assessment of art inherently combines both.

      I was thinking about some more movies that I respect more than I like–Monsieur Verdoux also comes to mind.

  4. Any article with a mention of ‘Kagemusha’ is OK in my book Simon.

    I was interested to read what you thought about ‘Blow Up’. I saw this on release, aged 15, and it was very much a film of its time. Trying to hard to be clever, a work of style over substance, with an (modelled on David Bailey) unlikeable lead from Hemmings. However, back then, I thought it to be a fresh and smart British-set film in the French style. (This despite being based on a Spanish story, and directed by an Italian.)
    Roll forward a few decades, and I bought it on DVD. Watching again, after a long gap, I thought it was silly at best, pretentious at worst.
    Tastes do change, even for alcoholic drinks!
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete–I think you’re right; it’s one of those films that doesn’t age well. Tastes certainly do change, though some things always stay constant … like Kagemusha. 😀

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