by Jon N. Hall 8/11/15
If you’re like most people, you’ve had a strong opinion about something that was not shared by those whom you respect. What’s wrong with them, you wonder; why can’t they see what I see; why do they hate what I love? Divergent opinions are quite common in the movies, and that’s because everybody is a movie critic. So what accounts for these sharp differences in opinion about the worth of certain movies? That’s my task, and I have a theory.
As my legions of fans know, I don’t go to the movies, the movies come to me. Which means: I wait to see them on cable. So I can be a bit behind on what’s out there. One 2013 movie that’s recently come to cable is Snowpiercer, directed by a Korean guy by the name of Joon-ho Bong (sic). This is a way-out, perhaps even outre film, but I think it has features of interest that make it worth screening. There’s a terrific performance by the ethereal Tilda Swinton, who looks decidedly un-ethereal here. Ed Harris is also rather good. The flick is based on a graphic novel, and it seems to be an allegory with strains of phantasmagoria thrown in. If you like Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet you might like this flick. My guru, Greg Gutfeld, endorsed Snowpiercer on The Five (see the bottom of the transcript), so it must be good. Herr Gutfeld also posted a poetic tweet about it.
I think I remember the late critic Gene Siskel saying that what folks go to the movies for is to see something they’ve never seen. Snowpiercer certainly fulfills that need. But as interesting as it is, it’s not exactly my cup of tea. Some folks have a taste for “weirdness” that I can OD on right quick-like.
Blade Runner is a sci-fi flick that many hold in high esteem. It’s watchable but I’m not so enthusiastic, and I say that as a fan of director Ridley Scott. I think I read the Philip K. Dick novel it’s based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I don’t remember enjoying it. (I don’t really like Dick; more of an Arthur C. Clarke kinda guy.) However, there was a little sci-fi movie from about 13 years ago that I loved but some of my friends and relatives hated, and that’s M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, with Mel Gibson. Perhaps the haters objected to its unabashed spirituality. Some folks are so anti-religion that any hint of religiosity turns them off. I guess they want to remain “pure.”
Religion also played a big part in a 2014 flick that just came to HBO: The Drop. But murder and mayhem play a bigger part. The movie was based on a short story by the fine crime novelist Dennis Lehane that appeared in Boston Noir, which I haven’t read. But I have read the novella that Lehane seems to have based on the movie. I thought that book was rather good and didn’t think I’d like the movie as much, but was pleasantly surprised. The English actor Tom Hardy pulled off the central role quite nicely; even got the American accent down. (In case you need something to read, know that Lehane packed the novella with additional elements that weren’t in the movie.)
Our next film goes back to ancient times, even to before the advent of the Internet. It’s The Player, from 1992, directed by Robert Altman, and I saw it recently on cable. Although I like some of Altman’s oeuvre, especially Gosford Park, and although Altman is from Kansas City, my hometown, I can’t say I cared for the movie all that much. But I would imagine that some cineastes do. You see, it’s very “meta,” that is, it’s about itself, and the movie biz. Here’s a list of movies that supposedly qualify as “meta-cinema,” but you won’t find The Player on it. No matter, this article makes a case that it is indeed an example of meta-cinema.
Some may take to The Player because it’s chock-a-block full of movie stars playing themselves. Since I’m not addled by celebrity I need something more, and this film leaves me cold. Oh, it has interesting bits, but it all seems rather nihilistic. The main character, a movie exec, says he wanted to change the screenplay, the screenplay of the movie you’re watching, to be “up.” Well, the ending didn’t seem “up” to me; seemed like they were running out of ideas. Still, there are interesting things in the movie, but I think it’s lacking something. You may disagree.
One of the more recent meta-movies just came to HBO and I really loved it. I refer to the 2014 Oscar winner Birdman by Alejandro González Iñárritu. The subtitle is “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” This movie has everything: sex, violence, money, betrayal, regret, redemption, family, failure, you name it. But perhaps the best thing it has is: execution. You see, Iñárritu sets for himself an “impossible” task, and he pulls it off. That alone is enough to bring a tear to your eye.
And what is this “impossible” task, you ask? As it happens, the task relates to the opening shot in the aforementioned The Player. Moreover, the characters in that opening shot refer to the opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil and to the entirety of Hitchcock’s Rope. As a movie lover, you can probably guess what I’m getting at: Almost all of Birdman is one, continuous, seamless shot. Only near the end do we get a little montage.
But it’s not just the technical, tour de force mastery that makes Birdman a winner. The hook for me came in the scene of the rehearsal when Michael Keaton is about to deliver a soliloquy and we hear the tentative opening to Mahler’s Ninth. As soon as I heard the muted horn, I knew it was Mahler and I was all-in. And then Keaton walks to the lip of the stage to address the audience, and the camera catches the glare of the theatre lights and then dollies around. Beautiful!
Well, you say, how sweet, but what does that have to do with anything?
Different people go to the cinema for rather different reasons, I theorize. The folks who hated Signs (which I actually saw in the theatre) want character development, they want plot, conflict, resolution; what they want is a story. For them the story is everything, and it has to make sense. If there are a lot of inconsistencies, if things don’t add up, they notice and it ruins the film for them. These people may have a difficult time with “the willing suspension of disbelief,” and may suffer from “pathological literal-mindedness.” For instance, in Shyamalan’s Signs they may object that aliens who traversed interstellar space wouldn’t allow themselves to be undone by anything as simple as a little H2O; they’d have taken precautions if water were really that lethal to them.
But who cares. Movie goers like me don’t get hung up on such things; we’re concerned about other things. One of the things that made Signs work for me was the terrific score by James Newton Howard. There’s an early scene in that flick that seems to have neither narrative nor dramatic impact that knocks my socks off: The family gets on top their car and the boy holds up his little sister’s baby monitor to the sky — to listen to the extraterrestrials, don’t cha know. While they all hold on to each other they strike a rough tableau, and then we see the azure sky with the boy’s hand holding the baby monitor, and while this is going on, Howard’s score is blazing forth. Magical!
Another 2014 flick that recently came to HBO that should appeal to those who demand strong narrative is David Fincher’s Gone Girl. The novel is by Gillian Flynn, another Kansas City native, (I checked my social calendar, and I’m fairly confident that I never dated her). I had doubts that the film would do justice to the book’s convoluted, peripeteia-packed story, which included two first-person narrators, at least one of which might qualify as an “unreliable narrator.”
If a novelist is concerned about a movie studio ruining the narrative structure of the book that she slaved over, it’s nice when they hire you to write the screenplay, which happened here. Ms. Flynn does a fine job of retaining the dual perspectives and plot reversals of her book. With its complex story and challenging characters, Gone Girl doesn’t lend itself to having a powerful score. But even though I’m one of those pathetic types who love movies with great music, arresting camera work, and artsy-fartsy stuff like that there, I enjoyed Gone Girl.
So my theory is simply that different people want different things out of the movies. Some want to think and to be challenged, while others are content to just luxuriate in the beauty of kinetic images. What’s your theory?
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.