In the literary world, there are two major types of fiction: popular/genre fiction and literary fiction. Though there are many ways to separate the two styles, one way is by focus. Genre fiction is interested in telling stories about normal people in extraordinary circumstances, whereas literary fiction is about extraordinary people in normal circumstances. Though this is not a hard and fast rule, it’s a pretty good way of separating the two.
This distinction bleeds over into film and is the reason why our Flickering Myth ratings are made up of two different scores. Popular films tend to be about straightforward characters who go on extraordinary missions, whereas Oscar-bait movies tend to be character pieces. Take, for example, the latest Ant-Man movie. Scott/Ant-Man is an everyman. Sure, he’s a bit of a rogue, but he’s a good father who’s looking to make amends for past misdeeds. Yes, he has a suit that allows him to become the size of an ant, but that counts as circumstance, as it’s a power bestowed upon him and isn’t an inherent part of his personality. However, the plot sees him fight a quantum being with the help of a scientist who’s searching for his wife in the quantum realm while using Pez dispensers as weapons etc. etc. A pretty spectacular scenario for an everyman.
Compare Ant-Man and the Wasp to a recent film such as First Reformed. First Reformed Follows a priest as he falls in love with a married woman whose husband – someone he had offered council to – commits suicide. Though this scenario is hardly usual, it is far from being as spectacular as the plot of Ant Man and the Wasp. It’s a perfectly believable scenario, even if it is uncommon. However, the core element of the story is The Priest’s internal struggle. He’s a far more complex man than Scott. He spends the film dealing with his alcoholism, his desire for a woman, and an ever-changing political viewpoint due to her late husband’s activism. He worries about the climate, his health, his own ex-wife, his new love, and the audience watches as he does his best to reconcile this in a world that closely resembles ours.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but what makes both of these movies enjoyable, and how can we asses them in a way that has some semblance of objectivity? Firstly, we must assess how much of an immediate impact the film has on us, and then how much of an intellectually-driven emotional impact it has on us. Let me explain.
In a genre film such as Ant-Man and the Wasp we are immediately hit by how cinematic it is. It’s loud, it’s bright, it’s full of action sequences and funny one-liners. In short, it’s an exciting spectacle.
First Reformed, on the other hand, is quiet, slow, and only occasionally funny. But it’s beautiful, and at times very uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable in the same way as a blockbuster, but it shares a commonality in that it uses its aesthetic qualities to evoke immediate emotion in its audience. Not all aesthetic judgements are made immediately, and films such as First Reformed often harbour subtler aesthetic markers than blockbusters, but what is important is that they both use the immediate surface qualities of their images, sounds, and dialogue, to generate emotional responses in audiences. And it is with this that I can begin my discussion of Climax.