10/23/2007 01:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sean Penn: Master of the Moving Image

I've gone into every Sean Penn film the same way: I want to love it. I leave every Sean Penn film the same way: I love it. What happens in between is much different and much more interesting, and it is what makes Sean Penn one of the most underrated filmmakers working in America today.

Sean Penn's films are incredibly frustrating, and his latest (and most accessible) film Into the Wild is no exception. His narrative style most resembles a formless clump of matter: scenes drift off endlessly, sequences digress and seem to disregard themselves, all those meditative zooms and montages that could make Terrence Malick throw up in his mouth--I spend half my time just trying to figure out whether or not what I'm watching has a point. I think to myself, "Did Mr. Penn learn anything about movies while he was acting?" I keep threatening to walk out. I draw silly lines in the sand, saying "one more scene and it's aloha, Spicoli."

And yet I never leave. Somehow, amidst all the cursing and the mental obscene gestures I make at Penn, I get totally hooked. When and how I get hooked can never be isolated to a single moment; I can't point to the film and say "That's the scene where I got interested." But by the end, I am literally shaking, more profoundly affected by his film than the last ten films I've seen, and I typically spend the rest of the day in a deep, contemplative silence. After writing angry letters to Penn in my head for 90 minutes, now all I want to do is sit alone with his work. This is what makes him a master of the moving image.

It's taken me four films to figure out how he does this. Sean Penn's films look and feel like traditional Hollywood films--they've got stars, major financing, and top-notch production values--but Penn's films are anything but conventional, and their superficial resemblance to the Hollywood formula is the source of the audience's frustration and Penn's brilliance. Penn tricks us into thinking we're in for a safe, comfortable ride, a ride we've taken hundreds of times before. When we realize that this is not going to play out in a predictable, safe, comfortable fashion, we get anxious. Then we get angry, but if we stay in the theater, it is because we want the film to explain itself to us. In other words, we are seeking to meet the work of art on its own terms, and that is when Penn has us exactly where he wants us. His films aim to make things strange to us, to make us uncomfortable so that we can cast aside all formulas and traditions. Once we step out from behind that false sense of aesthetic security, we are ready to embrace a new vision, which is exactly what Penn brings to narrative cinema.

Penn's films demonstrate how boring and dead three-act film structure is, a structure so predictable and safe that no real artistic risks can be taken. Penn's films are so refreshing because they refuse to conform to what is expected of an American film. Such an endeavor may not break box office records, but what it does manage to do is affect people deeply, which is really the point of this whole art thing to begin with. Love them or hate them, Sean Penn's films make you feel something and feel it intensely. No one leaves one of these films numb unless s/he makes a conscious choice to be that way. How many traditional Hollywood films can say the same?