A thought inspired by a recent debate between myself and a friend regarding the unspecified reason(s) Liza Minnelli’s character in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York is attracted to Robert De Niro’s brutish saxophonist:
Is his allure beguiling, or nonexistent? The questionable intentionality of this vagueness can change how successful you find the movie, because it can be tricky to engage with a 150-minute romance over the deafening din of a simple, persistent query: “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”
One of the most common criticisms lobbed at narrative stories revolves around a character’s unclear motivations. “I don’t understand why they behaved/felt/thought that way / made that decision, etc.”
Though art can clarify the world’s confusion by shedding enlightening insights on the human condition, perhaps our expectations of such clarity — and criticisms when it’s absent — diminishes the complexity of art. In life, how often are we left confused by the actions of another? Very few people are translucent beings of straightforward intent. If art wants to reflect life, then we as the audience should be left in the relative dark regarding certain issues, given enough clues to brainstorm for ourselves, but not enough to treat them as conclusive answers; there should be enough to stimulate the psyche, but not too much as to not provoke the audience to work to figure out certain unknowns for themselves. How we think through/respond to art can reveal who we are, and interrogating our own responses can lead to identity makeovers.
A similar argument can be used to downplay the inflated importance of perceived plot holes; if we give the benefit of the doubt to artists that every component of their final creations — especially assumed mistakes and/or what leaves you confounded — are deliberate, that puts the onus on us to find meaning in such seemingly-jarring flights of fancy.
Oh, and as for the aforementioned argument concerning De Niro’s appeal, my girlfriend must interject: “You two bros are undervaluing the sexual power of peak Bobby D.”