Why We Watch the Movies

TheMoviesby 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. tilda-swinton_SNOWPIERCERThere’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.

alejandro_inarritu2One 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. • (975 views)

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5 Responses to Why We Watch the Movies

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I don’t get out to movies much either (the last time was for The Phantom Menace, I think), and don’t have any premium cable movie channels or such, so it can take a while for me to get an opportunity to see a movie. Of the ones discussed here, I think the only one I’ve seen was Bladerunner), a decent enough movie but not on my list of all-time favorites. (I haven’t read the novel, though I’ve read a modest amount of Dick fiction. Then, too, I would agree in preferring Clarke to Dick.)

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    In my experience, taste is something that is both personal and something that can be developed. What we like when we are 13 is likely different than what we like when we get older. And that’s the way it should be.

    I doubt I could have appreciated “Gone with the Wind” when I was 13. And a lot of what I see today in cinema has that age group (or mindset) in mind. And I think good taste can be stunted by the sheer load of crap that most movies are these days.

    I feel fortunate to have developed exquisite taste in movies, and I like to share the finer creative efforts I happen across with people. If they don’t share my taste, I can live with that because I know I have very good taste indeed in movies and the ability to comment on them with some objectivity. I can look at something like “Avatar,” for instance, and as horrible of a movie that was, I understand that the somewhat low-brow tastes being developed today might find that movie emotionally satisfying.

    And “emotionally satisfying” is central to the topic at hand. With people being propagandized into the Leftist point of view, they typically love when business is shown as the villains, for instance. As Mr. Kung has pointed out regarding some of his reviews (Father Brown comes to mind), you see the moral inversion being represented in movies (and commercials). Does anyone get a chuckle out of the fact, for instance, that almost all of those home intruder commercials feature a white guy trying to break into the house? You’re just not going to see a black guy.

    True, that’s the result of political correctness. But all this goes, in part, to shaping one’s aesthetic taste, of what kinds of themes one will emotionally respond to. And look at the movies or TV episodes where the bad guy is often a white Christian and rarely a “person of color” Muslim. This is where I part with the culture, for I find that what brings a tear to the eye of the average movie-goer often brings howls of laughter to me. In “Avatar,” for instance, I was laughing at the environmental wacko element. And when that big tree fell due to the bad white American military men (could they have lathered it on any thicker?), I laughed. You might not have laughed, but then you (out there) might still have the juvenile taste that is so prevalent in our culture.

    But I laughed. And people stream to watch these new movies made from comic books. But almost to the one, they are crappy movies (a couple have been good, one or two outstanding). So here we come to another phenomenon of taste: people seem to get it in their head that something is good because they want it so bad to be good. I never enter a movie demanding it be one way or another. I respond to what it is.

    But clearly many people do otherwise. So there are a whole host of influences beyond mere “some want to be challenged/some want their brain cells jiggled.” Indeed, sometimes I want my brain cells jiggled and view a movie as I would a roller coaster ride. I loved “Indiana Jones” and certainly don’t expect it to be “Citizen Kane.” There are different genres where “good” is somewhat relative to the genera.

    Being your highly-trained movie professional, I can adjust my reviews to the genera and give fairly dependably opinions that you can count on. If others have different or lesser taste, fine. That’s just the way things are. But when I review a movie, I do so as if I were doing so for all time and from an absolutely impartial perspective even though aesthetic tastes themselves are never neutral and can never be.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I think most of my childhood tastes have remained with me; for example, I still like the Three Stooges (a few decades ago, I watched The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze with a friend, and I have a videotape with some of their episodes). But one can also develop additional tastes, and I suspect most people do. (Small children generally have little interest in romantic movies, for example.)

      An interesting example of a very PC (albeit well done otherwise) movie was Starman. It occurred to me as I watched that every character in it came off as one would expect a Hollywood liberal to think of them. So the good guys include the widow, the Hispanics who picked them up, and the scientist in a government office. But his bureaucratic boss, the police, and a hunter are all unpleasant characters.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I think most of my childhood tastes have remained with me;

        The Stooges have some good shtick, as do Laural and Hardy. As does Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. All these guys bring in another element: One must to some extent be able to view these things within the time they were created.

        Many people today can’t do that. They absolutely can’t let go of their PC mindset (or their juvenile narcissism) and actually have fun ditching present circumstances and getting lost in a period piece. So we do stupid things such as the Sherlock Holmes movies that turned Holmes into a super-hero of sorts.

        And some can’t enjoy a movie simply because it’s in black-and-white. And I often hear truly moronic critiques of some old sci-fi film. They couldn’t like it because the special effects were so crude. Good god, talk about the lack of an ability to be touched by a story and instead fixating on mere trinkets.

        No overview of movie tastes would be complete without noting one of Dennis Prager’s truisms: “Everything the Left touches they make worse.” And they have been devastating to the arts and to the viewing public. I get a dark pleasure out of seeing all these dumb asses in their reviews (typically at IMDB.com) decrying this movie or that movie for racism. It’s become so tragically ridiculous. Unless a black person or “person of color” is cast in a role where he or she always acts on the highest motives, it’s deemed “racist.”

        This gets so bad, these goofballs can’t look at a period piece where certain attitudes or customs were predominant without lording themselves over the movie, calling this or that element racists, sexist, or whatever. Talk about “Everything the Left touches it makes worse.” It’s turned much of the movie-going public into bitter and artless scolds.

        I remember trying to watch “Starman” and I just couldn’t get 15 minutes into it. Glad I didn’t invest the time.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          When we visited the Cincinnati historical museum, they had a model early-20th-century street including a small theater, which actually played a short Buster Keaton movie. Elizabeth and I watched it all the way through.

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