Vital is far from the most obscure movie I’ve written about so far, but it’s obscure enough that it got me thinking why on a gut level I mostly react against certain kinds of difficulty in movies.
Vital is a Japanese movie about a young man who is seriously injured in an auto accident and loses his memory. He had been pursuing a medical education before giving it up for reasons unspecified (I think), but shortly after the accident he enrolls in medical school after all. Apparently he remembers whatever drew him to the study of medicine, and does not remember whatever made him abandon it. Which thrills his parents, who of course never wanted him to give up medicine in the first place.
Over time, some of his memory comes back, and he is told things about his past by people. He finds out that a girlfriend was in the car with him when he had his accident, and that she died from the injuries she sustained. The bigger shock though is when he comes to believe the cadaver he has been assigned to dissect is his dead girlfriend.
The main source of obscurity is that there are plenty of ambiguous scenes where you don’t know if they’re happening here and now, they’re his returning memories, they’re his dreams or fantasies, they’re happening in some other dimension where ghosts dwell, or some other supernatural thing like that is going on.
That’s the kind of obscurity I just don’t have a lot of patience for. I don’t want to have to wonder “Is this scene happening or is it fantasy?” when I’m watching a movie.
People—at least the small segment of the population who watches these foreign and indie films—will no doubt scoff at that, and tell me I’ve been trained by mainstream movies to expect to be spoonfed everything, to have everything dumbed down so as not to be challenging, that life itself is filled with ambiguities and obscurities, and quality movies should not be obligated to pretend otherwise and wrap up their stories in a nice, neat easily understandable package.
But that’s just it. Life very, very rarely puts us in a position of not knowing if what we’re perceiving is real. Over 99% of the time you know if you’re dreaming or not. This kind of obscurity in movies is more akin to the mental state of someone who is seriously mentally ill, or perhaps is in the midst of a very powerful hallucinogenic drug experience.
I’m not saying there should be no movies that deal with that fraction of 1% of the human experience, but why do such a high proportion of indie and foreign films try through analogy to help us better understand the experience of lunatics? I don’t buy the notion that a movie displays depth or greater artistic merit if it blurs the line between reality and fantasy.
I’m less opposed to, but still not thrilled by, another very common source of confusion in indie films, which is when they seemingly start in the middle, providing no kind of background or context for what you’re watching, and then gradually, if you’re lucky, you’re permitted to better understand things retroactively as (some, but still very limited) context and additional information is provided.
Depending on how it’s handled, that too can be a pain in the ass, but at least here the defense of “but that’s the way life is” has some merit. In life, the things you experience and observe routinely do “start in the middle.” The situations you enter into and the people you interact with existed before you ever got there, and your understanding of them is always going to be limited. Over time you can come to know some of the background and context, but you’ll never get the “whole picture,” and certainly not in order.
So I can somewhat tolerate that. You do the best you can with the limited evidence you have, obtained in whatever order it happened to come available, just like in life.
But I still will hold out for a little more clarity even here. Because in life, the always incomplete nature of the available evidence isn’t quite as much a hindrance to understanding as it might seem. Because you can actively direct your attention to promising sources of elucidation.
You can ask questions. You can exercise some control over whether you talk to this person or that person, or read this book or that book. You can look in this direction rather than that direction. You can linger more over this because it’s not yet clear, while not bothering with that because you already know it.
Whereas in a movie you are passive. You will see and hear what’s on the screen, no more and no less. If you happen to process information differently from other people, tough, because it’s “one size fits all.” You can’t ask questions or reposition yourself to acquire a different perspective or anything like that that would fit your own way of obtaining understanding.
So I would say that, all else being equal, movies should actually be just a little bit clearer and provide just a little more background and context than you might get if you encountered the same situation in life, not to pander to the masses (or me) who need things dumbed down, but just to offset the extra obscurity added by the passive nature of movie watching.
So if I usually don’t like in movies the confusion that comes from surreal fuzziness on the border between reality and imagination, and I’m only sort of OK at best with the confusion that comes from dropping us into the middle of a story with no background or context, does it follow that I insist my movie watching be as easy as possible, that I don’t want to have to think, that I don’t want a movie to challenge me?
Certainly not. I welcome some kinds of difficulty, some kinds of challenges, and not others. (You typically wouldn’t, for instance, think a movie is deeper or the experience of watching it more edifying just because you’re watching it on a malfunctioning TV with a snowy picture and only intermittent sound, because that’s a bad source of confusion.) It’s not a matter of insisting everything be over-simplified.
Here are some ways that I like a movie to challenge me:
• It depicts complex moral situations that require one to take a great deal into account in even beginning to assess what ought to have been done or not done.
• It depicts multi-dimensional characters that push you toward a deeper understanding of human nature and human psychology.
• It is a work of non-fiction that gives you a lot of facts to think about that you weren’t previously privy to.
• It is a work of non-fiction that’s organized in the form of a logically coherent argument for a certain position on a matter of public controversy, and requires close attention to follow its logical structure.
• It contradicts some pre-existing belief you may not have even been conscious you had, and challenges you to rethink the matter, e.g., “I guess I always thought such-and-such kind of people had thus-and-so characteristics, but seeing this I have to wonder if I had any grounds for thinking that or if it was just a prejudice.”
Here are some ways that, as a rule of thumb, I don’t enjoy a movie challenging me:
• “Is this really happening or is he dreaming?”
• “Who are these people that we were given no introduction to and no reason to care about?”
• “Why is every scene so dark? I can’t even tell if that’s the same guy from before.”
• “What the hell just happened there?”
Anyway, to (finally) get back to Vital, as I say, it has a certain amount of the unwelcome kind of obscurity, but it’s not real bad in that regard.
But as far as other things to like or dislike about it, the dissection scenes were interesting to me. The way they were filmed, the things the students talk about concerning the cadavers, the different degrees of squeamishness among students in terms of their willingness to do the cutting or even just their ability to observe and not lose their lunch. The attempts to maintain a certain level of dignity in the treatment and eventual disposal of the cadavers. All that.
This point again relates to obscurity, but the movie went a little too far for my tastes in making the protagonist so uncommunicative. For a guy who lost his memory, it’s surprising that he rarely asks questions or shows much interest in conversing with people who can help him fill in gaps. He literally utters something like three words the first half hour or so of the movie.
Late in the film, a character says something to him like, “Dr. So-and-So is concerned that you’re pulling away from people and allowing yourself to become too isolated!” and I’m thinking, “Are you kidding? He occasionally utters something more than a monosyllable now; he’s positively extroverted and gregarious compared to earlier in the movie.”
I don’t feel his involvement with another student, and her having the experience of a professor killing himself over her, is integrated all that well with the main storyline about the cadaver and putting together the pieces of his former relationship. It seems more a distraction than a contribution.
Toward the end, I got the sense the movie was developing a certain way, but it turned out it didn’t. It seemed like it was settling into kind of a “medical mystery” thing. There were various facts offered up periodically—about the accident, about how his girlfriend was possibly mentally ill or suicidal, about how they engaged in some sort of asphyxia fetish where they strangled each other (at least I think that’s what kept happening in his memories or fantasies)—and I became convinced that it was building to a House-like moment where his dissecting her brain was going to produce some revelation about why she’d done the things she’d done or how she’d died or whatever. But the movie kind of petered out without anything like that happening, unless I missed it.
And because that’s where my focus was—on trying to anticipate the outcome of the medical mystery—I probably was even less adept than usual at picking up other stuff that was going on. I suspect this movie has a lot to say about death and grief and memory and a lot of things, and that only a small fraction of that got through to me. And I’m sure there’s a lot of symbolic or metaphorical stuff that went over my head, since that’s almost always the case with movies like this.
So overall Vital was below average in terms of what I look for in a movie, but probably a quite good movie if you’re more in tune with this style of filmmaking. I found it mildly confusing, and somewhat interesting in parts, with an ending a little more subtle and unresolving than I would have preferred.