The audience at the screening of Side Effects I attended was on par with those for most free screenings I’ve been to in my time as a critic: uncaring, prone to talking, and regretfully hostile toward displays of adult sexuality and emotional nuance. A scene of two women kissing drew uncomfortable titters; a shot of someone attempting suicide drew laughs when it cut to black. Etc., etc.
This is lamentable and not remotely new. When it happens, I usually get angry and sad for the same reasons Daniel Mendelsohn laid out when talking about why critics love things: “What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject … that we find beautiful; and, then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.” When people laugh or sneer at the wrong moment — and believe me, there are such things as wrong moments — it makes me feel cold and separate from the crowd, unable to share in a community because the one around me doesn’t have any interest in the thing I’m there to enjoy, namely, the movie. The art.
But I also think about things like context, and attention, and the perils of nervous laughter. It’s not that the more inconsiderate members of the audience actually think suicide attempts are hilarious: it’s that these moments are presented so starkly on screen that we as viewers have no choice but to reckon with them, to make ourselves vulnerable to the story, and a lot of people would rather deflect than engage. It takes a certain level of commitment to let your emotions be guided by a film, and when you couple a mass audience’s general unwillingness to yield such control with the degraded focus and dying courtesy born of the home video environment, it’s no wonder that going to the movies can be such a damn grind. You’re sitting there with people who often have no desire to give of themselves, and who wouldn’t know the first way to go about it.
This is all related to the Asshole Quotient, but in ways that I’m still figuring out. It’s not just lack of consideration that causes some people to be so odious at the theater. It’s larger issues of perception and attention, and of the level of care and commitment they bring to the process. It’s about how they/we view movies in the first place, and what we want to get out of them. When a movie does something startling or weird or uncomfortable, nervous laughter is both the most understandable and least appropriate response because it lets you choose to avoid dealing with the film on its own terms. You’re not just alienating other viewers, but missing out on what the film might have to offer. It’s work, and it’s worthwhile. But you have to stay honest.
I spent a lot of time in January catching up with older movies I’d always meant to see. I jumped around from one era or genre to the next, but as a general rule I wanted to hunt down movies that were at least 50 years old. The most recent one I watched was 1973’s The Long Goodbye; the oldest was 1933’s The Kennel Murder Case. (Sites like CanIStream.it and InstantWatcher really come in handy.) I didn’t really start out with a plan, and my goal was only as focussed as “watch more movies.” But it was one of the most rewarding movie-watching months I’d had in a long time, which made me wonder: why?
The answer’s simple: I was hungry, and they fed me. This is always a lousy time of year for new releases, and the past few years I’ve just hunkered down and thought warmly of the South by Southwest Film Festival, which comes in March and always seems to bring titles that put gas back in my tank. I saw three new releases to review in January (though one opened on February 1), and they were all terrible to a degree: Gangster Squad, The Last Stand, and Stand Up Guys. In between those burdensome trips to the theater, I wanted to explore movies that could remind me of how much I loved the medium in the first place.
Part of the problem with loving movies is knowing where to start when you want to find those great new experiences. Hundreds of movies are released every year in the U.S. alone (PDF), and the pattern’s mostly held for decades, meaning there are thousands upon thousands of American-made movies I haven’t seen or even heard of yet. Staring up at that relentless annual wave, it can be easy to stick with new or recent releases and catch up on slightly aged movies via cable or streaming services. It takes more effort to seek things out, even if they’re trivial or fleeting or turn out to be bad. It’s not that it’s hard or anything; this is still movie-watching we’re talking about, not pilates. It’s just that on-demand services have gradually conditioned us to find the film of least resistance, and to take the fewest steps from logging on to selecting a movie.
That work is worth it, though. There’s a phrase I heard probably 15 years ago that I’ve never forgotten: If you eat mince all day, you won’t know steak when you see it. I have no idea who originally said it, and I’m probably taking liberty with it, too. The point is that if you sustain yourself with nothing but processed filler, you won’t know a good meal when it’s right in front of you. And a large percentage of movies in any given year are probably going to be filler. Filler’s the worst: it’s not memorable enough to be bad or good, and it’s designed to do nothing but distract you from what you really want. It’s rewarding work to keep looking for those films that are more challenging, more interesting, more entertaining; the ones that are just better.
It’s also worth doing because seeing a variety of movies from multiple eras can remind you just how broad the definition of “good” can be. More accurately, you look for different things, especially in terms of pacing, editing, and structure. It’s so easy to think that movies all have to look like they do right now. We don’t even know we think it, which is where the problem starts. But by constantly looking at movies from different eras — by training ourselves to respond to different methods of filmmaking, different social contexts, different styles and sounds — we can shake loose the chains of the multiplex and start to feel film for what it is: a breathing, changing thing.
Here are the non-2013 movies I saw last month:
The Naked City (1948)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
The Stranger (1946)
Across 110th Street (1972)
Appointment With Danger (1951)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Sleep, My Love (1948)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
Some were better than others, but every one was worth seeing. Another peril that every generation faces is the idea that they (meaning we) are the most advanced, the most educated, the most artistically insightful, simply because they’re (we’re) the latest thing to come along. But movies 75 years old can be as dark and weird and funny and sexy as anything we can make today, and they’re just as resourceful with their own technical means as today’s filmmakers. (Hitchcock gets amazing mileage out of miniatures and rear-screen projection in The Lady Vanishes.) The Stranger is amazingly grim, and notable for being the first Hollywood movie to show actual footage from World War II concentration camps. Witness for the Prosecution has some of the best suspense and twists I’ve seen in years. His Girl Friday is so funny you can’t catch everything the first time. The Long Goodbye is a sad, wistfully funny movie that’s perfectly 1970s.
You get the point. It’s restorative to find these works and see what they look like today. To get a slightly bigger picture on film and its history. To turn away from the scraps and demand a feast. It’s worth every bit of effort you can give it.
It should go without saying that the proper punctuation would be “stand-up guys.” But what can you do?
I love a lot of things about “Justified”: the blend of serialized and segmented storytelling; the grand sense of place and adventure; the dialogue and characters. But time and again I’m taken with the show’s sense of place, and its commitment to creating a burned-out little universe that feels as real and lived-in as the Baltimore of “The Wire.” I finally realized what it is about the show’s depiction of Harlan that’s so arresting, and what reminded me of “The Wire” to begin with: its sense of poverty.
Poverty on television is something to be mocked or ignored, especially when dealing with people from the South. MTV’s latest reality show, “Buckwild,” takes place in West Virginia and gets a lot of mileage out of turning its characters into cartoons. But “Justified” looks with open eyes into the real face of people who are struggling to survive, and who in their desperation and anger have made some very bad choices. Ellen May, one of the strung-out prostitutes who works for Boyd Crowder, is a truly pitiable woman, but she’s not a joke. She’s a real person, bruised and lonely, and worthy of so much more than being a punch line.
Her decision to attend the church in the wild — to raise her hands with snake-handlers, to cry at the thought of being saved and held close — makes absolute sense. Logistically, the show needed a narrative way to put the church on Boyd’s radar, but emotionally, it rings true for ELlen May to find these people and ask for help. Similarly, the show doesn’t treat the church’s members as rubes, or its charismatic leader as a charlatan or psycho. These are simply real people, living poor and troubles lives the likes of which we rarely see on narrative television.
It’s not that these people are all saints, or that they don’t do stupid things. But their downfall is never because they’re poor, and the joke is never that they don’t have clean shirts. The series does its characters and viewers a powerful service by simply taking these types of poverties and folding them into the larger narrative. That’s what makes it feel so real, and why it has the power to move us.
In which I take another look at cheesy soundtrack singles, those hallmarks of my youth.
I wrote a while back about rewatchability, and the difference between great movies and those you want to spend more time with. Over at Pajiba, the staff voted on the titles we considered to be the most rewatchable of the year. I think awards and wrap-up lists are usually pointless, but the goal of this one is totally different, and rather than a ranked order of 10 films, I feel like we’ve come up with 10 solid picks that are only numbered out of formality. In other words, the ranking reflects a title’s popularity among us, not a declaration of worth.
My list is slightly different than the staff-sourced consensus, but not by much. Here’s what I had:
It’s a solid list. Click here for the full thing.
In which I look at the few January movies that haven’t been totally awful. I was tempted to include a double-shot of teen soaps from my youth — She’s All That and Varsity Blues, which dropped two weeks apart in January 1999 — but ultimately decided against it. I’m a man torn.