This is not a film. (Or is it?)

September 14, 2012

“It’s not a film!”

Those are the words I found myself shouting at the kitchen radio Friday as yet another news reporter described the anti-Muslim video clip that may have led to this week’s violent demonstrations in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

It may be a function of just having spent a week at the Toronto International Film Festival, an annual celebration of the medium I’ve spent 20 years of my life absorbing, pondering and writing about. It might be the reflexive crouch of someone who’s spent much of that time defending cinematic principles from the creep of aesthetic degradation.

But when I watched the 13-minute YouTube “trailer” for something purportedly called “The Innocence of Muslims,” every fiber in my being resisted following the lead of people calling it a film. Not only is the project’s provenance still murky — its producer, a convicted felon with several aliases, has vanished; it may never have been seen in its entirety; its funding source remains shrouded in mystery — but the jumble of cheesy-looking scenes and badly dubbed dialogue on display look less like promotional scenes culled from a fully realized motion picture than a primitive piece of cynical agitprop.

We used to know what a movie was: a narrative or aesthetic experience captured on celluloid, then projected with the aid of a light source onto a screen. But in an era when anyone can capture a moving image on a digital phone or watch a mega-budget Hollywood spectacle on a laptop, the definition of a film has become vexingly fluid.

There’s no doubt when you’re watching “The Dark Knight Rises” on a big screen that you’re experiencing cinema. But if you watch a 17-second phone-grab of a baby panda sneezing on YouTube, is that a movie? Or is it something else?

This isn’t an argument about production values: As any Ed Wood fan will tell you, cheap-looking DIY productions have a hallowed place in cinematic history. (The Hollywood Reporter suggested Thursday that some of the alleged production was shot on the same “Backlot-istan” used to film “JAG” and other TV shows, although much of it appears to have been taped in front of a green screen, the desert backdrop superimposed later.)

But until we’re presented with a bona fide, fully edited movie to consider, all the audience has to evaluate are fragments — a series of awkwardly staged encounters between white actors in brownface that would be risible if they weren’t so vile. Indeed, “The Innocence of Muslims” doesn’t resemble a movie, or even a movie advertisement, as much as it harks back to Florida pastor Terry Jones burning a Koran — a provocation he staged and videotaped and posted on YouTube. It turns out that Jones — along with radical anti-Muslim groups in the United States and Egypt — has been promoting “The Innocence of Muslims” on his Web site. Could that mean this is more closely related to an outlandish, albeit shrewdly disseminated, stunt rather than the “film” observers keep calling it?

Then again, with the language of film in such flux — with myriad moving images being captured and transmitted so ubiquitously, on screens big and small — semantics may be the least of our problems, as this week’s events so grievously suggest. As recorded visual material proliferates, from the crudely random to the most thoughtfully composed, my quibble over whether the “Innocence of Muslims” video is a film or not matters less than whether we possess the skills to make sense of what we’re seeing.

What were the people behind and in front of the camera trying to achieve? Did they achieve it? Was it worth achieving? These are the questions I ask myself every time I sit down to write a review, and they’re as relevant for evaluating a panda sneezing as for analyzing the latest Steven Spielberg narrative epic or Terrence Malick tone poem.

Much has been made in recent days of the need for citizens living in new post-dictatorship societies to develop the thick skins that unfettered freedom of speech entails. But there’s another necessity that even those of us living in liberal, enlightened democracies can stand to brush up on. Media literacy — the ability to think skeptically and discerningly about the visual information that constantly bombards us from multiplex screens, our televisions and the Web — has become as necessary a component of civic life in the 21st century as basic literacy was in the 20th.

What were the people behind the “Innocence of Muslims” video trying to achieve? Based on the still-developing story, their aim seems to have been humiliation, whether in the name of conversion or inciting violent reaction. The fact that they succeeded has less to do with their own effectiveness — as filmmakers or hoaxsters — than in the confidence that their toxic enterprise would find a largely credulous audience. Whether or not they’ve made a genuine film is ultimately irrelevant: The more crucial question is if we’re able to be critics.

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