The Rashomon Effect

Tim McEown finds it both fascinating and crazy frustrating that two people can experience the same film in such entirely different ways.

By Tim McEown

Mailed on July 27, 2016

Dear Jared and Christopher,

The Rashomon Effect
The Rashomon effect is contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. The phrase derives from the film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a murder and possible rape are all different.

Since I have a little bit more to say about Jared’s piece I’ll start with that, and then I’ll have a run at Christopher’s take.

I find it both fascinating and crazy frustrating that two people can experience the same film in such entirely different ways. And while I certainly think that the circumstances surrounding the experience—the theatre, the individual’s state of mind, beer or no beer, the relative quality of the popcorn—all matter to one degree or the other, I still believe we would have probably ended up in roughly the same place regarding De Palma.

One of the reasons for that is pretty obvious. We all live in our own bubbles of consciousness, our own little universe. We see the world from a fundamentally subjective viewpoint that is utterly distinct from any other, so inevitably any common experience—when held up in comparison—will be out of sync.

Given that inevitability, it is kind of wondrous that any of us manage to communicate at all. But we do, and for the most part we find enough common ground that we can share, with varying degrees of coherence, our worlds. Where this all becomes interesting to me is when two interpretations of the same experience vary so completely, especially when the people involved (in this case and I) share a lot in common.

We’re both white males, both fairly astute, both committed to the idea that film is worth the time and energy to try and appreciate beyond simple consumption, and we both think Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is at, or near, the apex of a particular type of filmmaking. We share a common culture and seem to have similar points of reference. But our experience of the same film, De Palma, couldn’t have been more different.

Some of that difference is baked in, but it is the degree to which we differ that is what I find so fascinating, and is the primary reason why film criticism, or cultural criticism of any stripe, is sometimes so valuable. It is those differences, and how coherently they are expressed, that help bracket a film, that creates a context for others to see what is, or isn’t, intrinsically valuable about a particular work. That we can manage to express our experiences and POV in a way that is comprehensible to others is miracle enough, but to be able to overlay that with an analysis that can sometimes enhance someone else’s experience is really something special.

There are probably as many reasons as there are De Palma films for why we differ so completely in this case, but I think there is one specific difference that is built on a first principle. Our perception of De Palma as both filmmaker and human is diametrically opposed. You see a ‘charismatic guy sitting in a chair’ whereas I see a broken old man. You see ‘an artistic complexity and ambition of vision’ whereas I see a fundamental emptiness of spirit compensated for by technical sleight of hand. And the most baffling of truths in all of this is that I suspect we are both right—as much as that means anything at all.

That is why all this writing and talking and listening and arguing matters. Every time I take on board someone else’s view of a shared experience, my own little universe gets slightly bigger.

Every time I’m required to re-examine and re-evaluate my own experience because someone differs with me, it means I’m less likely to get stuck in the mire of my own neural pathways. And for me that is pretty much what life is—the evolution of your own pocket universe. And what that universe looks like, how fecund or arid it is, comes down to a person’s capacity and willingness to engage with viewpoints that contrast with their own.

Which brings me round to Christopher’s piece and how I think that he is very correctyet , I would add one caveat. Since one of the things about what we do at DCAC is to write to specific cast members, I sometimes find that I’m thinking more about the filmmakers and less about potential audiences when I write. And while I hardly expect what I’m writing to be read by its intended recipient, it stills strikes me as a valuable exercise for one very specific reason. What we do, what all film and culture is really about, is this ceaseless back and forth, this exchange of opinion, knowledge, creativity, criticism and most importantly, our specific experiences interacting with some or all of the above.

So maybe I’m less clear about the boundaries than you are, Christopher, but perhaps that is as much to do with my tendency towards the autodidactic as anything else. What I do agree with is maintaining the balance point between literary onanism and pertinent self-reference (for instance—using terms like onanism). The problem being, even the line between excess and useful is almost entirely arbitrary, and has as much to do with the reader as it does the writer.

Nonetheless, I will never stop being surprised that everyone doesn’t see the world the way I do, but I also will never stop trying to find ways to clearly articulate what it is that I think and feel about the culture I experience. And in the end whether we agree or not is utterly inconsequential, because what matters is that we can manage to express those differences in ways that change the colors in someone else’s world, even just a little bit.

So, thank you both for doing a little bit of painting.



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