Monday, November 21, 2011

The Movie's Good, I Just Don't Like It

"Greg said it's not about that so shut up, stupid!"
The laws of film criticism would seem to dictate that when a movie is good, demonstrably good, we should like it or, at least, appreciate it in all its glorious excellence.  I'm not talking about those recent brouhahas and kerfuffles and, dare I say it, foofaraws that erupted after that one critic wrote a piece about how he didn't like those movies he was supposed to like, but found boring, only to be told by two other critics exactly why those movies were likeable.

It's not about that.

No, it's about a movie that seems well-done in every possible way but is still quite unlikeable.  The writing is literate and tight, the plot works well, the acting is uniformly good, the direction clear and efficient, the musical score, editing, photography, sound, etc. are all top-drawer, as my non-existent prep school friends would say (their names are "Chip" and "Skip").  And yet, I simply don't like them.  And I don't mean "it's not my cup of tea" (Chip and Skip again), I mean, "Damn!  I really hate this movie!"  See, that's kind of confusing because when a movie has everything going for it, it seems like somehow, someway, I should like it.  But that's not the case nearly as often as it should be.

Back in 1996, everyone in the world of film criticism (well, it seemed that way but it was before aggregate shit sites like Rotten Tomatoes so what in the hell do I know) was lying on the floor recovering from spasms of nirvana after watching The English Patient.  Seriously, I'd read a review and the critic would be all like, "English Patient? Touch me... there."   So I saw it and found it to have fantastic acting, a really tight script, good clean direction and breathtaking cinematography.  And, brother, did I hate that fucking thing!   And I don't really know why because I've never taken the time to go back and watch it again which I probably should because it seems like I'm constantly hating or loving movies that I end up reversing my opinion on in weeks, days, sometimes hours.  I do this because, as best I can tell, I've got some kind of mental problem but, you know what, that's for another post.

So, again, I can't claim The English Patient is bad.  I think everyone involved should be proud of their accomplishments on it.  It's not easy to make a movie, really it's not and something like The English Patient shows the kind of skill and talent that we should all be so lucky to possess.  It takes time, patience and a butt-load of money and I'm not here to dismiss any of the movies discussed in this post, just say that, inexplicably, I don't like them while acknowledging they're all well-done.

"This movie is bullshit! Good popcorn, though."
What got me thinking about this again was my recent viewing of The Road.  Is it well done?  I'd say, exceptionally so.  The post-apocalyptic landscape is, for one, so convincing, so dead, so grey, so lifeless that I'd swear the art director and set designer had somehow seen the coming end of the world and replicated it for the film (how they would have done this I'm still working out but I'm strongly leaning towards a time-helmet of some kind).  The lead performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smitt-McPhee are both excellent and the story has a lean, efficient quality to it.   A no-frills kind of feeling that is perfectly fitting for such an enterprise.  And yet, by the end, I couldn't help but think the entire viewing was a complete and utter waste of my time.   I've felt that way ever since.  Here's what I got from it:  Nothing.

Maybe there's a slickness involved that I just don't connect with.  It's possible.  All the films that produce this kind of reaction in me feel perfectly done in some vague, technical way.  In fact, a lot of Best Picture winners fall into this category for me as well as almost the entire career of Ron Howard.  I see a Ron Howard movie and everything in them seems just right, you know?  As in, no chances taken, no going outside the constraints of the familiar, no bold exploration of new ideas.  They all have that prepackaged feel to them.  A sort of "Paint by the Numbers" where all the colors are right and in the right place but it feels forced, stiff, dead.

By contrast, when I watch something like Stroszek, it feels like Werner Herzog was making it up as he went.  And that feels great!  It's like he said, "Okay, let's film you driving away.  No! Wait!  Drive the truck in circles first.  Then get out.  Then get back in.  Set something on fire.  No!  Wait!  Is there some kind of crazy theme park or arcade around here?  What?  What's that?  Dancing chickens?  Perfect!  Let's go there and film that!"

It's the same when I watch early Scorsese.  Mean Streets and Taxi Driver have a dirty, messy, sloppy feel to them, a feel I really like.  The Aviator, on the other hand, is excellent on all levels but I just don't like it.  It feels so clean, so polished, so... so not Scorsese.  Same with The Departed.   All of these films, from The English Patient to (oh, let's pick a Howard film) Frost/Nixon seem so very uninspired.  They feel like the work of people who all know exactly what they're doing and they do it well but they don't let any part of themselves become a part of the equation.   It's like the recording of Born Free by Andy Williams (Huh? What?  Just bear with me, okay?).  In the song, he sings every note exactly as written and it's a running joke for my wife and me to take note of the one part in the song where he doesn't, the very last verse where, instead of singing the word "free" he kind of speaks it, boldly.  It's unintentionally funny because it's the one, single, solitary moment where he lets any kind of personality enter into his rendition.   Rather than phrasing the words to fit his feelings, emotions and instincts, like a Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, he does exactly what he's supposed to do.  Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

"Nothing I said applies to me.  Now get off my lawn!"
So maybe that's it.  Maybe when a film does exactly what it's supposed to do, it turns me off.   Maybe that's why I'm a fan of so many scratchy, ugly, thrown-together movies from the seventies and so little a fan of so much from the eighties on.   From the eighties on, thanks to technology in filming as well as post-production editing and special effects, even crappy, low-rent movies have a slick, polished look to them.  But that can't be the whole story because as much as an Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty or Chicago don't work for me, practically everything Hollywood did in the forties does and if anything ever fit the definition of "people who know exactly what they're doing and doing it well", it's Hollywood in the forties.  I mean, those guys and gals put together movies like Tin Lizzies rolling off of Henry Ford's assembly line and, somehow, most of them do feel inspired to me.  Maybe that's because they were inserting themselves into the films (oh shit, it's that theory -  RUN!  Save yourself before it takes over the whole discussion!).   Or maybe there are too many people involved in the post-production now to keep any kind of individual directorial vision up there on the screen for anyone to even notice.  Or maybe I'm just a grumpy old curmudgeon and this is the dumbest idea I've ever had for a post because, in the end, there can be no possible answer to the question, "How can a movie do everything right and feel so wrong?"