The 2023 Dionysus AwardsMar 05, 2023
What movies of the past year challenged your assumptions and made you think about things in new ways?
A caller in this week's episode nominated "Women Talking" for a Dionysus Award. Guest co-host Jeremy Sabol takes that as a springboard to blog about movies and community.
What are we losing as we drift towards a cinema that we experience alone? As we heard from our Roving Philosophical Report, more and more cinemas are struggling to keep their doors open, and more and more people consume films in their own homes, often alone. Women Talking is a challenging film about what it means to be a community, but it's also a film that reminds us that films were meant to be watched in community.
Most of the run time of Women Talking is accurately described by the film's title. All the women in a small, isolated Mennonite community gather in a drafty barn to deliberate about what they should do in the face of a horrific communal trauma.
If we see the movie in a cinema, we too are sitting together, in a cavernous theater, not so unlike a drafty barn. We, like these women, are diverse in our experiences and in our views about how best to live together. Of course the differences are vital: we, unlike these women, are not processing a terrible event that has befallen us all. We likely also lack a belief system that unites us in purpose. We're not looking into each other's eyes, talking with each other, trying to reckon with our differences. Instead, we're watching together, alone perhaps in our reactions but together nevertheless.
So then: are we somehow supposed to decide something together in the theater, in the same way that the women are deciding on the big screen, in that barn? Is that what the movie is asking of us, impossible as that is?
And then it gets personal for the blogger at hand. Am I, a man, permitted a vote in this imaginary, impossible decision? Perhaps instead my role is to record the discussion and the votes, as the young teacher August does in this film. There are, of course, other roles for men modeled in this film, even though they figure only briefly on screen. There are the attackers. There are the men in the community to have left to post bail for the attackers. There is the abusive husband, returning menacingly by lamplight. I look around in the darkened theatre and take stock. Where do we see ourselves onscreen?
If "we" vote to leave - in the film, a courageous, transgressive act of futurity on the part of these women - what does that actually mean for us filmgoers in the great barn of the movie theater? What is that place that should we leave, and where would we go? And - certainly most urgently for me personally, but not most morally urgent by far- am I a part of this "we", or am I a part of what is being left behind?
The film does not begin to answer these questions for me. Instead, viewed together with hundreds of strangers, the film seems to task me with generating my own replies to these questions. It outrageously asks me to cast my vote in an unfamiliar collectivity in a dark room, a vote which will not be heard but which I must nevertheless cast in public, as we all file out of the theater together.
All of that burden, all of that responsibility, all of that challenge, all of that opportunity—that’s because there’s a “we” there, watching together in the theater. If I watched the film on my laptop, perhaps these questions would never even arise in the first place. And certainly if they did, they would not weigh on me as they do when I am surrounded by others. The barn on screen is not cozy or conducive to collective deliberation. The women in that barn are shown feeling the full weight of the decision they are making, and yet perhaps they are able to shoulder that weight because they are in it together. And maybe the same is true for us viewers — at least as long as movie theaters continue to exist.
Wednesday, March 22, 2023 -- 5:57 AMJeremy,
Most Blogs on Philosophy Talk (PT) are put up without attribution, so let me first thank you for putting your name to this one. That is not a small ask, as writing takes time, and thought is your bread and butter.
Next let me say this picture PT has chosen is perfect. The girl who outed the crime is staring at us, while the others look to August, as I recall the scene. This is the dilemma I see presenting this viewer at least.
I address this to you as, in small, I see PT as a barn and your questions as posed to the PT community. Initially, I wrote a stream-of-consciousness response and continued to rewrite it in my head, as the inquiries you raise are significant, and the barn deserves better. I offer back my toast to which you may apply jam if needed.
Contrary to your suggestion, we are gaining quite a bit 'as we drift towards a cinema we experience alone.' When people first experienced movies, the crowd shouted in horror to see a train come crashing through the screen. Then we stopped shouting. We ate popcorn (which I still do in my dark room) and enjoyed the addition of sound and color, along with the cooled/heated shelter of what became a view of how to enjoy this new art form. But there is no one view, and the experience will constantly change. We will likely enjoy the cinema in virtual reality from our chosen perspective or that intended by the work itself. When I play games online or watch live sports, I seek out others, in blog forums, in Discord or Twitch, and share community, most times in silence. That community is changing and even more engaging than the 'cinema' that offered community or shared experience you discuss. We don’t communicate with others when we attend a theater. Most times, we didn't do this in your good old days either. Now we are more engaged than ever if we choose, or alone, as you say. I put it to the barn; we are never alone, and our isolation is philosophical.
Engaging with the subject matter is only sometimes required. In this case, it is absolutely, since, as you have stated, that is the film's intent. August tries to hand off the notes to the women, but they are for the men, and the women's new journey is clear enough.
If you take the premise seriously, you are not permitted a vote in this 'imaginary, impossible decision.' Melvin's path is another matter (poorly conceived), but the women, as do the children, need autonomy. Male identity and roles are not portrayed in this film, except as the villain. The film has the traditional gender issues somewhat reversed. The females are well spoken and empowered. Male intellect, in our world, is on the decline. Only about 43% of college undergraduates are men nowadays. This is not true by discipline, but traditional pathways to education are mainly righting the inequity of male and female roles, even if this is not true in the trades and military (though there is progress there as well.)
August offers no model for males except observe the issues the women and children are expressing in his notes and their drawings. A man's role may be to oppress women historically, but we need to have that conversation among ourselves and not in the company of women and children. It is a male problem, yours and mine. We have no vote. If we don’t own that, I’m not sure I understand how the dudes can abide.
Women have already voted to leave home to pursue education and promise.
As to what men should do, we shouldn't kill ourselves as is August's wont. We must come to terms with our history and plight our troth with equity as a first and primary promise. Every individual has their own path, which is philosophical and is measured in action.
Personally, I don't watch Harry Weinstein films anymore. I agree with the need for unarmed peace officers to do wellness checks, but I see a need for armed security despite ongoing police brutality. I have never been more aware of my privilege, but I don't have much wealth to rectify it in my lifetime. My giving is reserved for the absolute neediest, and my criteria are poor.
The joint path for men and women is to honor the least among us. That is the path in Ursula LeGuin's 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,' which Ray recommended not too long ago. We need to leave communities of oppression and honor our partners' vision, even when that means they will leave us to our barn.
Thanks for this blog,