When I grade a stack of student essays, I will often come across one where the student just didn’t get the material. Their interpretation has nothing to do with the work itself, as though they had an opinion they wanted to express and they were going to do it regardless of the assignment. Rarely, however, have I seen a movie do this.
As I watched Rubber, a film directed and written by Quentin Dupieux, I felt like pulling out my red pen. Admittedly what I am about to say has probably already been said by quite a few film critics. Unfortunately, I ignored their warnings.
A film about a tire, named Robert, that comes to life and telekinetically explodes people’s heads seems like it would be the perfect film for me. If it was just a silly gore-fest, the horror fan-girl in me would be happy. If it was an art house film that resisted traditional story telling and interpretation, the pretentious academic in me would be happy. How could I not like this movie?
I hated it, because the director did not trust his audience to understand it. The “No Reason” monologue at the beginning of the film would get points for having a clear thesis, if it were a student essay. Film is visual medium, and that leaves some room for interpretation by the audience. The director runs the risk of being misunderstood, but hundreds of other directors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors and musicians have faced this possibility and still created great works without having to spell out the meaning. Creating art is an act of trust—artists put out their ideas and emotions for the world to see and hope at least a few will understand. However, if you have to spell it out for your audience, than maybe you need go back and look critically at your own work.
Ignoring the director’s lack of trust—the opening speech makes some major errors. The sheriff, who is giving the monologue, asks why in E.T. is the alien brown, why in Love Story do the character fall in love, why in Oliver Stone’s JFK is the president shot, why in The Pianist is the titular character in hiding, or why in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre do the characters never go the bathroom. He answers each question with “no reason.” If I were grading this like a paper, I would circle the word “reason” and ask Dupieux if he meant “meaning.” We can argue that these choices are meaningless and tell us nothing about the film or the world, which apparently is also without reason or meaning.
All the things listed in the monologue have reasons, they just don’t carry deep meaning. To take one example from the above list, we don’t see the characters in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre go to the bathroom because it’s unnecessary for the story and would ruin the tension. What does it mean? Nothing.
Art is not like life and is created with purpose and meaning. When artists take up their paintbrushes or movie cameras, it is because they want to communicate something. Sometimes it is something profound; sometimes they’re just saying those trees over there are pretty. Art always has a reason and a meaning, even if the piece is telling us that there is no meaning in the world and shit just happens for no reason. It is, however, a mistake to think every aspect of a piece of art carries meaning. The designer of the alien in E.T. probably had some very good reasons for making the alien brown, but this does not give the alien’s color a symbolic meaning.
Without that monologue I would have thought that Dupieux was saying that a movie is only a movie. Much like how Rene Margritte’s painting “This is Not a Pipe” calls attention to the fact that a painting is just some pigment on a canvas in the end, it is not the object pictured. After all, the audience watching the events of the film while in the film, the sheriff pulling out the script and reading it, and the army of tires finally arriving in Hollywood seems to call attention to that fact that a movie is artifice. Hell, even most of the opening monologue could have been to draw attention to the fact that things happen in a movie for no other reason than to move the plot forward. Since Dupieux’s thesis connects film with real life, he seems to be saying that art like life is without reason.
Maybe I’m being obtuse and the monologue was meant to be ironic, but I doubt that.
I have to admit that I’m probably being unfair here. The films in my queue after this one were Waiting for Godot and Hobo with a Shot Gun, which satisfied both my super ego and id.