The Rashomon Effect Effect

The “Rashomon effect” describes the tendency of witnesses to or participants in the same events to give mutually contradictory accounts of what happened due to the subjectivity and fallibility of human memory. It’s named after the 1950 film Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in which four witnesses to a murder give contradictory accounts of what happened. The term is bandied about a lot in pop psychology (and philosophy) articles, and one of its more recent applications is, of course, This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit. In the aftermath of the two major political upsets of 2016, the mainstream media churned out hundreds of handwringing articles about the “post-truth world”, because it’s insufficient for cloistered political and media elites to have merely been wrong, their opinions and expertise are so important that if they were wrong, the only explanation was that the fundamental human ability to distinguish reality from fiction had completely disintegrated.

With its emphasis on an immutable failing of human nature – a fundamental inability to ever truly recall events accurately or, in effect, to know the world at all – it was inevitable that the Rashomon effect would be trotted out as a buzzy term to explain the new reality. Michael Wolff even mentions it in his insider account of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury. The appeal of the term is easy to understand: it describes a basic and insurmountable flaw, so it absolves everyone of responsibility to think about how and why falsehoods may have played a more decisive role in recent politics than in a supposed past era where people were more honest, or at least where the public was harder to hoodwink. I’m not saying they have done – I’m sceptical of the notion of a “post-truth world” – but if they did, I could think of reasons other than the Rashomon effect. Off the top of my head, it’s possible formerly authoritative news sources destroyed their credibility with the public by, among other things, helping the Bush administration manufacture the pretext for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. I’m no expert, but I have to wonder if perhaps public trust in the media was damaged when literally no one lost their job over one of the most massive and systemic failures of journalism in recent times.

Of course, that’s just my interpretation, and here’s where I should be putting the obvious joke about how it’s just like in Rashomon, where everyone remembers things differently. But there’s a problem. Unlike most people who reference the Rashomon effect, I’ve seen Rashomon. And Rashomon isn’t about the subjectivity and fallibility of memory. It’s about lying.

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The Year in Film(s That Didn’t Come Out This Year)

One of the most annoying things about being a young critic – or just any young person who likes to talk about movies – is the pressure to pretend like you’ve already seen every great film ever made. Some of that is a purely self-imposed anxiety about sounding knowledgeable enough to justify your opinions, but mostly it’s the fairly explicit comments like “What!? How have you not seen X!?” or “Come back to me when you’ve watched Y, then maybe you’ll know what you’re talking about”.

But no one, not even Edgar Wright or Quentin Tarantino, has seen every great film ever made, even when you leave aside that anywhere between 70% and 90% of films made before 1929 are lost. The last time anyone could conceivably watch ever film every made was the early 1930s, and more great films have probably gone unnoticed or forgotten than will ever be recognised. People have families and friends and interests and jobs and also just can’t physically stare at screens for a long time with no breaks. Even if you could somehow make time to watch a film every day, not including new ones, it would take you years to make a dent in the canon of great American cinema, let alone every other country, let alone alternative, experimental and avant-garde film, let alone all the great movies that were dismissed on release and have yet to be rehabilitated by dorks like us.

You don’t have to pretend to have seen all the “great” or “important” films to think, speak or write about movies. We sure haven’t. You can find out our favourite new releases of the year when we post the Sundae Film Awards 2018 in March, but we’re ending 2017 with a look back on the best films we saw this year that didn’t come out this year.

These films are great, and you should watch them. But it’s not a big deal if you don’t.

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