One of my resolutions for late 2016 and early 2017 has been to watch a new movie every week. It started out as a means of distracting myself on Sundays so that I could take my mind off of the imminent work week ahead of me, but has developed into an attempt to become a little bit more cultured. In the modern age of streaming technology, this resolution means that I spend a great deal of my time on Sunday afternoons indecisively flitting from one movie to another to decide which one I want to watch. After a few weeks of this, I began to notice a disturbing trend that made me reevaluate my consumption of different kinds of content.
I was sitting hunched over my computer, watching the time tick by as I struggled to decide whether or not I wanted to watch An Affair to Remember, or Joe Wright’s Atonement. I knew that both movies were highly regarded, the former being a classic romance and one the latter being a heavy period piece drama. Then a third movie crossed my mind, The Physician, a German film I had been meaning to watch for over a year. I struggled with the most difficult of first world problem for about fifteen minutes before I realized that I was sick to my stomach.
I found myself trying to appraise and rate the films before I had even had the chance to see them. Apparently, I didn’t want to waste my time on a movie that was not critically regarded and well respected. I was looking at Rotten Tomatoes scores and thinking about which one had a better reputation and seemed like a more impressive film. Not a better film. A more impressive one. I wanted to watch the movie that would make me feel and seem more cultured and intelligent. I was trying to find something to watch that would make me feel better about myself. In short, I realized that I was being an arrogant, pretentious ass who was trying to stroke his own ego.
Frustrated with my own vanity, I ignored the Oscar bait and the “classic,” and turned on a movie that a friend of mine had recommended to me, Zootopia. For those of you who have not seen this movie, which came out in early 2016 and stars Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman, please do yourself a favor and watch it. It is a delightful buddy cop film starring an anthropomorphic rabbit and fox solving a crime in the titular city. I was expecting this much, but what I was not expecting was for it to tackle issues of race and prejudice head-on, and to do so in a way that was at times genuinely emotional and upsetting. Zootopia has something to say, but expresses itself genuinely without seeming ostentatious or heavy-handed. It is a phenomenal movie that I learned a lot from, and I had almost ignored it because I wanted to pick something with a better title or reputation.
I imagine that most people with access to streaming content have had a similar experience of some kind, spending what seems like hours searching Netflix or Hulu for the right movie or show. It’s almost sad in a way, because it takes some of the spontaneity out of the process. I rarely watch movies on cable anymore, but there is something really wonderful about what Guillermo Del Toro has jokingly referred to as, “one-sock movies.” The phrase, which I believe he heard from Alec Baldwin, captures to those movies that you start watching by accident, perhaps just as you’re about to leave the room. An hour and a half later you finish the movie with one sock still lying on the side of the bed. It can be hard to find a one-sock movie when you can search a database of movies, compare IMDB ratings, and even read the plots if you’re so inclined.
My bad judgment towards Zootopia had made me think of one of my own one-sock movies, Tootsie. I caught this movie, starring Dustin Hoffman as a brilliant but insufferable actor dressing up as a woman in order to get acting jobs, one day as a teenager and it has since become one of my favorite movies. Wrapped beneath the goofy one-liners and the whacky misunderstandings is a story about a chauvinist learning to appreciate and respect women. I was also reminded of a touching interview that Hoffman once gave regarding the movie where he remembered thinking that:
“I think I’m an interesting woman when I see myself onscreen, and I know that if I saw myself at a party I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think that women have to have, to ask them out… There’s too many interesting women that I have not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.”
Now ignoring the backlash that has sometimes surrounded this quote (I am a white man and would not touch this issue with a ten-foot pole, a bomb-defusing robot, and a pack of trained attack dogs) I can’t help but think that the sentiment can hold true for many kinds of media.
My own pretension disgusts me because in the interest of self-improvement I had been ignoring the fundamental purpose of this art, to enjoy it. I think that analyzing a movie can be incredibly enjoyable, and picking apart what makes a story work or function is something that I love to engage in. It’s wonderful to hear someone who really understands film, like Marc Bernardin of the LA Times, discuss what makes a movie effective. However, it is possible to focus too much on this process, and to obsess over the details in a way that robs the whole experience of its joy and magic. You can’t get completely carried away by a piece of fiction if you pick it apart so much that you forget to really watch it.
I have a desire to improve myself, and to try experience things that will make me more cultured. But how many movies, books, and other experiences am I writing off simply because they don’t match my perceptions of what I should be watching, reading or doing? In a time when you can look up “top ten books that everyone should read,” it seems like there is so little room for imperfection, yet this imperfection can be incredibly satisfying. There is, and should be, nothing wrong with embracing content with all of its flaws and imperfections. Even if the movie or book is not perfect, does it really matter if it made you feel something, or made you examine something in a different way?
As a teenager I adored Rober Zemeckis’ version of Beowulf. The entirely motion capture CGI film was essentially filmed in the Uncanny Valley. The characters look and move too much like humans to be typical cartoons, but also don’t have the texture and dexterity to seem real. It was a pre-Avatar world, but I loved it. I thought it was an interesting take on the original story, despite its strangenesss. The over-the-top masculinity of the characters, and its exploration of some of mankind’s most pernicious weaknesses, appealed to me. Yes it also had some questionable choices, namely everything to do with Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Grendel’s mother, but I genuinely felt that it had merit. I doubt that the movie would really hold up today, but at the time it meant something to me even if it was thoroughly absurd.
I don’t think that taking enjoyment from a bad, or even imperfect, movie or book means that you have bad taste. I think it means that you connected with something in it that moved you. Getting lost in another person’s creation and get swept up by them is to be under their power, if only for a moment. You and the creator shared an intimate moment that neither of you will every fully understand, but that means so much.
When we try to insulate ourselves from new experiences and media simply because we don’t want to waste our time with subpar art, I think that we do ourselves a disservice. You can only really appreciate beauty through comparison, if every movie were The Lion in Winter (Shameless plug for my second favorite movie) than it wouldn’t really be special. Even middle of the road movies and books sometimes have elements that resonate and linger long after the experience is over. Anyone who disagrees needs to take the time to read some of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Barbarian to find what historian Daniele Bolelli referred to as the stoic philosopher trapped in the body of the muscular Cimmerian.
Here we find him ruminating on the subject of the gods in Queen of the Black Coast (Conan, not Bolelli):
“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content”
For that matter, consider the following from the 1982 film adaptation:
“There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.”
If you think that these lines are completely without merit, then I think there is something wrong with you.
Ultimately most powerful aspect of films, literature, and fiction in general is its ability to take us away from who and where we are. We immerse ourselves in another world for a short period of time. Even if that world might seem foolish or immature to others. Fiction can take us away and move us to our very core, but only if we let it. To quote director/podcast mogul Kevin Smith, the king of unbridled and unabashed enthusiasm, when talking about comic book movies and shows, “They just make me forget that I’m going to die one day.” Isn’t that enough?
*Confession, I have no actual defense for Ernest Scared Stupid, and nothing to say about The Importance of Being Earnest. I can only say that the former terrified me for six years, and that the latter is somewhere deep on my To Be Read list. My apologies to Jim Varney and Oscar Wilde respectively. If you feel that I lead you here under false pretenses, I apologize.