Films: A Syntopticon Project

For those who are familiar with the writings about reading by Mortimer Adler, to engage in syntopical reading is to read a large amount of books about the same subject in order to have a context by which to judge each book.  In order to understand a book, it is often useful to understand at least some (if not all) of the books that are engaged in a conversation with that book.  And, it should be noted, this is also useful when it comes to films.  Just like books are in conversations with other books, sometimes explicitly so by the name-dropping and references of an author, and sometimes implicitly by language and argument and vocabulary and topic, so too films are often made in conversation with other films, and sometimes even films that are not strictly related to each other have a context when one views them alongside other films that they would not have when taken on their own in isolation.

For a variety of reasons, I have long viewed films back to back when I have gone out to the theater.  Part of the reason this happens is because my days to watch movies are fairly limited by not having to work and not being under the gun as far as other projects are concerned, and so there are predictable times where I will tend to watch multiple films back to back.  One time, for example, I watched the extended cuts of all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back to back, a task that required staying up all night with the girl I was dating at the time and some of our mutual friends from New England when I was visiting there one winter.  In this case, watching an entire series, no matter how long, is not necessarily a syntopical project, because all of the films should have the same context and a coherent story flow as well as cinematography.  Yet there are definitely times when there are continuity errors that one can notice by watching films back to back to back.  This is especially true in the Harry Potter series, which has one example where a character, Lavender Brown, is drastically recast from a first appearance to her much larger role in the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth film.

Most of the time, though, a syntopical film-watching experience brings films together that one may not necessarily put together at first.  This past weekend, for example, I watched the movies “Operation Finale” and “Christopher Robin” back to back.  At first glance, these films would have little in common.  The first is a gritty and tense true crime historical movie, and the second is an old-fashioned imaginary origin story for the Winnie The Pooh series, which may be greenlit for a sequel since it has made more than $100 million on a modest budget in the domestic box office.  That said, there is a great deal of similarity between the two films.  Both of them deal with the effects of war, the difficulties of adulting, the struggle to fulfill one’s mission while remaining human, and the importance of family.  Both of them ultimately, in very different ways, have an inspirational message that rings true from the plot and characterization and dialogue.  To considerably oversimplify the matter, we can view “Operation Finale” as a successful struggle on the part of survivors of a horrible war to remain human in the face of the cruelty of Adolf Eichmann and the permanent problem of anti-Semitism in the world, and we can view “Christopher Robin” as a successful struggle on the part of an artist to maintain his humanity and sanity in the face of the cruelty of the adult and corporate world.

Nor is this the only example I can think of where two films viewed back to back had a strange context when put together.  One time on the day after Thanksgiving I viewed “Twelve Years A Slave” and “The Book Thief” back to back [2].  In this case, the two films again did not appear to relate to each other but had some very strong resonances.    “Twelve Years A Slave” is a somber film about an honorable free black man kidnapped and sold into cruel slavery in Lousiana who suffers for a dozen years before his friends are able to arrange his freedom.  On the other hand, “The Book Thief” is about a poor but intelligent German girl who steals books but is otherwise a decent person in World War II Germany.  In both films, the question about property and its legitimacy and the duty of obedience to corrupt and evil authorities in a historical perspective is explored thoughtfully and well.  Both lead characters are portrayed as poor but dignified, despite their lack of respect for the property rights of others.  Both films were also obvious Oscar bait as serious literary adaptations with solid production values.  While watching both of these films back to back was a pretty grim experience, each film also shed light on the other.

One can expect in these days of very unoriginal filmmaking that syntopical film watching will become more and more important.  Aside from serious films that are adapted from literature or history, which will always be somewhat unoriginal because they are aiming at verisimilitude instead to some existing event or intellectual property, the trailers I saw did not inspire much confidence about the originality of contemporary filmmakers.  For example, I saw the trailer to a live action Dumbo movie that is coming out, a trailer for a live-action version of the Nutcracker, a totally unnecessary sequel to Mary Poppins, and a trailer for the umpteenth film about a drug dealer who rises from poverty to snitching after making his mark and his millions.  Far from being original films, these are tired cliches getting run into the dirt for easy money because it is easier to rehash the same ideas and franchises over and over again than take the risk of writing something new and unusual.  In that light, in order to be a fair judge of films that are coming out, one has to know the films they are rebooting or reinterpreting or following, or one will miss the whole point of the films as a whole, namely to cash off of existing and beloved films and franchises that already have a known and sizable fanbase.  Perhaps at times the process of making oneself familiar with a context of films can make one a bit cynical, but that is always a danger when one becomes very familiar with any sort of artistic medium where many people want to make a mark but there are only so many things that can be said and so many ways to say them in a compelling fashion.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Films: A Syntopticon Project

  1. Pingback: A Tale Of Sports Subgenres: A Syntoptical Reading Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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