23 July 2009

Movies are Like Dating In That they Don't Always Work Out

The question: "why didn't you like that movie?" is sometimes analogous to: "why don't you want to go out with her again?" After all a movie is like a first date. The film is trying to impress you. If you have a good first date you'll see her again and if your really like a movie you'll see it again.

Back in my younger days (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I had a fair amount of dates. Sometimes with perfectly lovely, intelligent, charming women. But there was no connection and thus no second date. Similarly I see many movies that are lovely to look at and are perfectly wonderful in many respects. But we just don't click.

I finally saw Beau Geste (1939) on TCM the other day directed by one of my favorites William Wellman. It had Gary Cooper and Ray Milland and Robert Preston and lots of thrills, adventures, heroism and I didn't much like it. TCM host Robert Osborne had given it the big sell. But there was just no chemistry between the film and I. Look, I'm under no obligation to tell you why, we just didn't hit it off. I'm not in the habit of parsing a movie I don't like it. Move on and see another. Sort of like dating, only with a movie you don't have to worry about hurt feelings.

When I posted part eight of my favorite directors series on Billy Wilder, some readers were surprised that Sabrina (1954) did not make the top ten. It's a perfectly wonderful movie with the pulchritudinous Audrey Hepburn along with two of my favorite actors, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. That's one helluva cast and the movie is a delight that I've enjoyed several times. But I'm not in love with it. Sue me.

You want to tell me how great Sabrina is? Go ahead, I won't argue with you. But I won't agree with you either.

At the risk of being obvious, we are all different so art strikes us in different ways. People look at the same damn painting, hear the same music or watch the same movie and because they bring their very own perspective and life experience and taste to it, have completely different reactions.

Does this render all criticism moot? Absolutely not. In the case of film a review, reading a review, whether positive or negative, that you agree with can help you understand and articulate your view of the movie. Whereas before all you could say about a film was "Wow! That was great!" or "Oh my God, that totally sucked!" now you can better understand your feelings, get to why you loved/hated it.

Reviews can also help steer you away from or towards a particular film. With the proliferation of reviews all over the internet, one can easily get a consensus of critical opinion, especially if there is close to near unanimity about a film. Of course you can go to the most highly praised film of the century and think it's trash. More likely, as in my case with Slumdog Millionaire (2008), you'll wonder what all the fuss was about. I thought it an okay film but it didn't do anything special for me. (I've gotten a lot of flack for not loving it "like everybody else" so I'll quote my favorite film blogger, Jim Emerson: I was talking about "Slumdog" the other day with a friend who was equally bewildered by its success as a "feel-good" movie. I have no objection to feeling good. I have no blanket objection to the portrayal of suffering -- even child-torture -- in movies. My problem with "Slumdog" is not that it wants to make you feel good, or that it shows child-torture and cruelty. It's with the glossy cinematic techniques it uses to try to make you feel so good about the experience of watching child-torture and cruelty. And what is the movie's "answer" -- "D) it is written" -- supposed to signify, anyway? To me it feels like it means nothing more than, "We scripted a happy ending from the very start, even though we're showing you all this prettified horror and misery so don't you worry your little head about it." Thanks Jim.

Sometimes people expect a justification for why you didn't like a film. In some ways it's like asking why you're not going to see that young lady again -- but she's beautiful, how come you didn't like her? Maybe the film looked and sounded great, but we just didn't hit it off. In fact it was like that Prom queen with the gorgeous smile and great body, I need something more.

There are, of course, even really "smart' movies that don't appeal to me. A few years ago noted film critic and historian David Thomson, a man I much admire, introduced Jean-Luc Goddard's Pierrot le fou (1965) at the Pacific Film Archives, singing its praises most emphatically. I absolutely hated it. Such pretentious garbage I'd never seen before. I had a moment of thinking that this was something I should like, must have gone over my head. It was only a moment. I recovered quickly and realized that this was like a terrible first date of two people with nothing in common. Actually Pierrot le fou was like going out with the most obnoxious self absorbed person I'd ever met.

If that first date is particularly offensive or rude it may be worth mentioning to other people. Same with a film. If it displays what a critic considers bad taste or is insulting that needs to be made clear. So sure if I just don't connect with a film it's not worth mentioning, but if it has racist stereotypes or is exploitive, I'd be obliged to call it out.

When people I love or respect don't like one of my favorite films, I can feel stunned, hurt, saddened even angry. What's wrong with them? I, of course, recover and practice acceptance of those things I cannot change.

Of course, films, are quite unlike relationships in that we can love many of them at the same time. I've got DVDs of many of my favorite films snugly sharing space on a bookcase. (To the best of my knowledge they are not jealous of one another.) I can have repeat dates with them over and over. I can "have" a different one each night. So many to choose from all waiting for me.

Just like the dating fantasies of my youth!


R. D. Finch said...

Riku, a very thoughtful post on a bewildering subject, something that everyone who loves movies and likes to examine their reactions to a particular movie has experienced. So often a highly praised movie fails to satisfy, even though it may seem to have all the right elements. What happened? Sometimes, as you write, it's a puzzlement--the two of us just failed to click.

By the way, I have the same problem with Godard as you did (and have taken a lot of flak for it from cinephiles I know). For me he is the greatest refutation of the vaunted auteur theory (and I see Thomson as quite auteurist in his approach to criticism): What if a film has an identifiable personality behind it, one with consistent thematic interests, and you just don't respond to that personality, or worse, are put off by it? That's me and Godard.

Anonymous said...

And that's why I just don't care for "Citizen Kane."

(Kathryn, who can't remember her gmail password)