What makes us fall in love with a film?
I found myself asking this question as I walked out of class after meeting Jared Callahan last week. While his three shorts we watched, Janey Makes a Play, American Moderate, and The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella were all beautiful, well-constructed, and heartwarming pieces of film, none of them immediately struck me as impactful. Not in the way that Homemade or The Burning had – in a way that made me feel moved to action or residually haunted by problems that seemed so grand that they couldn’t filter through the sieve of my attention span. After watching Jared’s films I felt intrigued and impressed, but beyond that they left nothing but a warm aura of an impression.
And then we met Jared. From reading the other posts of my classmates, I know I’m not the only one who felt drawn into his charismatic responses to questions and his infectious enthusiasm. Within minutes of first hearing him speak about his filmmaking history and process, I wanted to see every film he’d ever made and ever film he would ever make. Forgetting the slow lulls in Janey Makes a Play that I had noted the night before, I found myself retrospectively enchanted with all of Jared’s films. I wanted to watch them again, I wanted to tell other people about them, and I wanted everyone to know how great this person and his artwork appeared to me. Suddenly, I felt a certain type of love for these pieces of work and their creator.
While I reacted with cynicism towards other guests we have brought into the class, I found for the first time that meeting Jared made me like his films more. That his approach, one he described as centered on a goal of “having [viewers] fall in love with [the subjects of his films],” made me feel more accepting of the films we had watched and less critical of their agendas. Jared’s films suddenly seemed an extension of himself, someone I found compassionate and charming, making his camera’s gaze seem comparably kind. Knowing and liking Jared made me feel like I knew and liked his film. Like I really, truly loved his films that night before I had felt somewhat ambivalently about.
As I’ve thought about the way meeting Jared tinted my perceptions of his films, I’ve begun to wonder if more important than the question of what makes us love certain films is if in doing so we come to love the people who create them. American Moderate, my favorite of the three pieces, portrays a set of characters who I would imagine I’d find it hard and disagreeable to interact with in person. Liz and her community are different from me – they have different views, different life experiences, and different values in many ways – but through Jared’s vision of them I found them understandable if not even endearing. However, I am unsure if the feeling of warmth that I feel towards Liz is truly directed at her: if I love Liz or if I love the way Jared loves Liz. If I love the subjects of his film or if I love his outlook on them. And if the two are divorceable in the first place.
In class we spoke at length about the ability to like films without liking their filmmakers, alluding to immoral or unpleasant filmmakers, authors, and others. It seemed like many of us thought that while in some capacities knowing an author, or actor, or director may be a “bad” person makes us look at their work more critically – in documentary film, several of us could find examples of films we loved despite their grating subjects. While I wasn’t uniquely drawn to Liz or Janey, meeting Jared made me feel drawn to the way he understood them. Piecing through this experience, I’ve begun to wonder if what makes us love documentaries – something unique from loving fictitious creators – is loving the way they see things.
The things I found enticing about Janey Makes a Play and Jared’s other works were not their stories or even their subjects, and in some sense, I believe that contrary to his objective, what Jared made us love was not these people but rather his relationships to them. Janey Makes a Play is only exciting because of the admiration that Jared expresses when he speaks about his grandmother. The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella is heartwarming because of the kindness with which we see Jared interact with Sommer and the palpable intimacy and love in their relationship. Liz, a girl from a background that has led her to have beliefs I fundamentally disagree with, is relatable because Jared chose to make her so, omitting intentionally incriminating footage of her and her family saying racist or offensive things. In all of these instances what draws me to these people are never the people themselves but Jared’s choice to portray them in a certain light – I am drawn to his perspective and his mission as a filmmaker.
I believe that this relationship – not just between the viewer and the filmmaker – but between the viewer and the filmmaker’s perspective and intent is integral to the way we consume and relate to documentary film. Thinking back to other guests we had in the class, the significance of this relationship became more apparent. I didn’t dislike Danielle as a person; I disliked the way she related to a family she saw struggling and the way she chose to represent them. While these are examples are anecdotal, they speak to what I believe is a critical component of what makes us love film: an ability to find in film a perspective that appeals to us and resembles our own, people who look through similar lenses and interpret things in similar frameworks. Just like how we find ourselves in characters, in fiction, and in people, we find ourselves equally in the resonance between our own outlook and those of others’. I love Jared’s approach to film because it seems grounded in a set of principles that are agreeable with my own. Even if we can divorce people from their work and their character from the quality of their creations, it is perhaps in the inextricable influence of an artist’s perspective that we find ourselves falling in love with work – with the idea that the frameworks through which we interpret, imagine, and observe the world are shared and given some weight of truth.