Wow! I've been planning a post all day to respond to many of the various discussions in the posts and various comments below, but I haven't had time until now to sit and really write anything. Then, in order to continue my obsession (read: compulsion) with thoroughness, I went to see that noted Golden Globe Best Picture (Musical/Comedy) nominee The Phantom of the Opera -- the sole Best Picture nominee I hadn't seen. While I went in with very low expectations (it is a Joel Schumacher film, after all), it was far worse than I could have ever anticipated. You know that discussion David started about the Hollywood Foreign Press being secretive and suspicious and even "dirty." Well, here's your proof. Payola must be involved because there is no way in hell that out of all the films potentially called a musical or comedy, any group of 80 or 90 people could conceivably call this one of the best. In fact, I'm marking it right now on my Razzie nominations ballot.
But enough about that piece of crap (at least for now). I can rant about it on my own site some other time. I'm much more concerned with the post written by Filmbrain. (Shocker, I know.) Yes, it's true, I'm far more fascinated by his consistent praise of other pieces of crap, most notably The Brown Bunny, Buffalo '66 and, while it's not crap, the utter mediocrity in filmmaking that is We Don't Live Here Anymore.
Filmbrain poses (and answers) some very interesting questions relating to how and why we watch/like/obsess over movies, and I'd bet that a comparison between his answers and mine would not only reveal a lot about the two of us, but also why we disagree about so much. So before I take issue with just about every comment regarding each movie Filmbrain mentioned, let me try to answer at least some of his questions.
A brief tangent: when I went to UCLA (during the Bush administration that nobody ever thought would someday be preceded by the words "the first …"), I took a screenwriting course from Richard Walter. UCLA has long been noted for its screenwriting program, and along with Lew Hunter, Walter has been one of the school's most prominent teacher's. He was keen on getting across a couple primary lessons to all his students: the only book any writer truly needs to study is Aristotle's Poetics, and the word "entertain" is a derivative of "intertwine." Therefore, a good story should literally envelop its audience, grabbing them and not letting go until it's over.
While I don't buy everything Walter sells, I appreciate that little bit, and it's a roundabout way of explaining what I look for in a film. I don't look for any one thing – I don't want to limit myself in that way. Sure, there are plenty of subjects and types of stories that I enjoy more than others, but I also love to find new things; to discover and experience realities or visions that on the surface I may not think are compelling. Ultimately, what I look for is to be entertained, but in saying that, I don't refer to what is commonly thought of as "simple entertainment" or light diversions. I remember a few years ago I went to see Requiem for a Dream and Dancer in the Dark back-to-back. Can you imagine a heavier, more depressing day at the movies? (Watching the entirety of Shoah straight-through, maybe.) But I loved both movies and was thoroughly entertained. This year, I laughed my ass off at Dodgeball -- silly entertainment, definitely more diversionary. I sat on the edge of my seat throughout Spider-Man 2 (which like Liz, I also put on my list) – the smartest, most human and well-written action film maybe since Raiders of the Lost Ark. They all entertained me, just in different ways. They drew me into their worlds and didn't let me go until they were done with what they had to say.
I don't pay closer attention to any one thing over any other. I let the film dictate what I notice. If one element stands out – in a positive or negative way – that's what grabs me. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, so I try to watch the result of that group effort. Yet that collaboration is made up of pieces, and sometimes, one piece is noticeably stronger or weaker than another. Obviously, I always pay attention to the script, but with every other element resulting from that original life-force, it's all linked together. I start watching all films the same way, but then as one progresses, it may dictate how I see the rest of it. The world created by the filmmaker will, for instance, dictate how much leeway I give the story in terms of believability or realism. Does it work, for me, within the world created by the film.
And finally, while I like to think that when the lights go down (and the commercials are done, and the previews are finished, and it's 7 hours after the scheduled start of the film) and the movie starts, I'm able to leave my expectations at the door, I'd be lying if I tried to claim that as true. Even the smallest bit of previous knowledge will create some sort of expectation. The Aviator is a great example. I believe I liked it more than Filmbrain, but both of us agreed that it is not a "great Scorsese film." What does that mean? We hold Scorsese to a higher standard, of course. Had the exact same movie on screen now carried a director's credit of Michael Bay, would I be calling it a "great Michael Bay film"? You bet your ass I would because Bay could never make this movie. Instead, Hughes' plane crash would last another 30 minutes and have 7,329 edits, and the short flight of the Spruce Goose would involve a lot more wind sheer while taking up its own half-hour.
But I don't think expectations control my final opinion of a movie even as they might influence it. Phantom of the Opera is a good example, in fact. I expected bad; I didn't anticipate this bad. I didn't expect the lip-synching and ambient sounds during the songs to be completely off. I didn't expect the orchestrations to sound overly synth-heavy and tinny. I didn't expect Schumacher to forget that actors need direction, especially when they all look wooden and robotic. I didn't expect Andrew Lloyd Weber to allow his title character to be played by an actor who really doesn't have the voice for it.
The Brown Bunny on the other hand is a film that exceeded my expectations, even though I still didn't like it. As I wrote in my original review:
Believe it or not, some of The Brown Bunny actually is kind of interesting. Once you get through the interminable first hour, the final 25-30 minutes (which includes Gallo's ultimate narcissistic moment – the blow-job from Chloe Sevigny) is actually not a horrible short film, as long as you're judging as if said short was made by an early-20s NYU or Columbia MFA student with no budget.
I was even slightly amused, along with bored, by the first hour which must hold some hypnotic power affecting only those who have drunk the Kool-Aid, like my dear friend Filmbrain. He's right: the scene with the parents is interesting, but five good minutes out of 60 does not a film make. I don't need to repeat my entire review here, but what I read in Filmbrain's admiring comments are how much he likes this stylistic element or that song. But to what effect? They say absolutely nothing. OK, he's lonely. Got it. Wait, I'm sorry. He's very lonely. And there's something missing. What is it? A girl named "Daisy." So let's kiss a bunch of other women with flower names. Filmbrain: for someone who puts so much emphasis on avoiding the obvious and clichés, how can you defend this? Because it's "personal"? Well, to me, that's a cop-out.
But that's why we're different, I suppose, and I'm not trying to be the rest of the world to your Armond White, or vice-versa. You say the "much ado about nothing" ending doesn't take away from the "magnificent" first hour, and I think the ending is the only part of the film with any substance whatsoever. Your answers to your own questions intrigued me because we obviously watch films differently. For one thing, it sounds to me as if you won't even allow yourself to enjoy something that doesn't fit this relatively prescribed formula you've developed as to your likes and dislikes.
What's wrong with "shiny happy people doing shiny happy things" if it's presented within the constraints of an interesting story? What's wrong with fun? I'm not going to try to psychoanalyze you, and I'm also not trying to defend simplistic one-dimensional films, but personally, I would characterize Singin' In the Rain as a movie with "shiny happy people doing shiny happy things." If you try to tell me it's a bad movie, I'm definitely referring you to my shrink. Of course the characters go through changes and moments of unhappiness or trouble, but overall, it's a happy movie. Does that mean I don't also enjoy darker films? Me? The guy who can't stop talking about film noir? My absolute favorite film is Sunset Blvd, and The Red Shoes, Network, Taxi Driver and Umberto D. all fall somewhere in my all-time Top 20. I wouldn't exactly call any of them "happy." In fact, most of my favorite stories (film, TV or literature) involve some sort of examination of human obsessive behavior, but that doesn't mean I can't also appreciate something lighter and happier.
Why do you only want to feel uncomfortable? I mean, if that's your preference, that's also your prerogative. But what does it say about you (or anyone) who only wants to see unlikable flawed characters? There are plenty of likable flawed ones out there too. (I don't pretend to have an answer to that question.)
I think I probably enjoyed Closer for many of the same reasons as you did, but ultimately the movie didn't rise to its potential for me. (And just for the record, I do count myself as one who believes Natalie Portman pees pink lemonade.) My biggest problem with the movie was the horrible miscasting of Jude Law and (especially) Julia Roberts. I can't explain it better than Anthony Lane did: "Roberts is at her loveliest when she is funny, she is at her funniest when she is happy, and she is never at her happiest in this film." I loved Clive Owen and Portman (and not just because of the whole pink lemonade thing), but the film's flaws (I had problems with the whole sense of time throughout as well) just didn't do it for me.
Meanwhile, the great Spider-Man 2 was a modern hero story that also managed to express the trials and troubles of a young adult searching for and coming to terms with his own identity. How does he accept the gifts as well as the limitations placed upon him to be content in this world, especially if taking advantage of what he's best at could actually facilitate the loss of what he most desires. Spider-Man 2 is actually about lots of things, and the exciting visuals and action simply enhanced my enjoyment of watching it.
Well, I've used up way more space than intended, so I'll have to get to We Don't Live Here Anymore (which I don't by any means hate) and other topics some other time, but this is one of the things about film I find most fascinating. I know that Filmbrain is as passionate about movies as I am. There are probably many things regarding life, living and the real world about which we agree, but whether or not we watch movies the same way, we obviously process them differently. However, Filmbrain, I think your processor might be broken. Maybe you should have that checked. (I keed … I keed.)