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Knowing nothing about 'Nowhere Boy'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 15, 2010 - Knowing nothing about 'Nowhere Boy' Leonard Maltin claims that he saw "Nowhere Boy" - which he likes a great deal more than I did - without having the slightest clue that the film was about the early life of John Lennon. While I have no reason to doubt the estimable Maltin (though I think he might have guessed the subject from the title), I find it interesting that he says his complete ignorance about the subject matter was "the best possible way" to see a film. Is total innocence about a film's subject the best way to approach it?

Is such innocence even possible any more? (Spoiler alert!: No.) While I have sometimes noticed - with amazement - ticket buyers standing in front of a multiplex box office without having even decided what they were there to see, I can think of only one time that I've walked into an auditorium with absolutely no idea of what to expect - an unbilled "sneak preview" of Richard Lester's "The Ritz" in 1976 - and even that, once the film started, was "corrupted" at least slightly, since I was familiar with the director and had heard of the source for the film.

Today, however, the advertising campaigns for most films make it a safe bet that the typical moviegoer knows the subject, a fair amount the plot and perhaps even a few unavoidable "spoilers" by the time he's bought his ticket. (In the case films like the "Harry Potter"and "Twilight" franchises, a good portion of the audience knows considerably more than that and would be irritated to find any unfamiliar material; surprises are the last thing they want.)

It happens, purely by coincidence, that I saw Maltin's piece at a time when I had been thinking about the "innocence" of film experiences, though from a slightly different perspective. I recently wrote in this space about Louis Feuillade's "Fantomas," a 95-year-old film serial, and it occurred to me that my viewing - on a DVD played on a computer in 2010 - was different in nearly every possible aspect from the way Paris audiences saw those films in 1915.

First of all, I'm aware of things that Feuillade's contemporaries didn't know: the signs of wear on the print, the anachronistic musical score, the film's critical reputation - in other words, a fair of amount of historical baggage. But there are other places where the 1915 audience may have an edge in comprehension: They would have recognized the settings, probably had a greater understanding of the structure of the French judicial system and, given the popularity of the Fantomas books at the time, would have felt a greater sense of familiarity with the characters and the events.

And that's where a crucial difference arises between the Fantomas of 1915 and its deceptively similar 2010 shadow. While the ordinary moviegoers of the first probably had an easier time comprehending the film, we later viewers accept the lapses in logic, the absurd plot twists, the very unfamiliarity of the things that the earlier audience would have taken for granted. By losing a certain amount of narrative clarity and gaining a large quantity of the above-mentioned historical baggage, we create a new film, one that mirrors that original release, filtered through time and a certain loss of innocence.

Too 'blue'

And speaking of lost innocence, Hollywood's perpetual schoolyard bullies, the GMRX Gang is at it again, applying its dreaded NC-17 rating to the forthcoming "Blue Valentine," a drama about a crumbling marriage. (It will be screened at the St. Louis film festival on Nov. 12). The cause for alarm is reportedly a scene that, while not considered any more graphic than an average "R" rated movie, reveals the psychological and emotional fissures in the lead couples relationship. Apparently a film can now earn an NC-17 rating solely on what its characters are thinking.

Best for Families

And speaking even more of lost innocence, the British newspaper The Guardian has compiled yet another of its ubiquitous film lists, this time of the 50 best "family films." See if you can spot the R-rated one.

The Lens is provided by Cinema St. Louis.