21 October, 2011

My Life in the Movies: There Are Some Arguments You Don't Want to Win

OR being a social and critical dilemma:
should you try to change someone's mind about a film they love, but you hate.

"Do not do unto others as you would
that they should do unto you.
Their tastes may not be the same."

--  George Bernard Shaw,
Man and Superman (1903),
Maxims for Revolutionists

On the 30th of April 2011 I was part of the winning team at the New Forest Film Festival's Fundraising Film Quiz.  My wife and I were put with three other couples who had come on their own.  While most of the other teams were made up of friends who were merely after a night out, we were four couples, with at least one film obsessive in each pair.  Our mix of ages and knowledge worked greatly to our advantage, and we quickly became respectful of each other's expertise and where we had to guess, we'd cede to whomever's was most educated.  The quiz was well balanced and had questions for all levels of interest.   Even my wife's canine expertise came into play on a Lassie question.  A soft spoken but sharp as a tack woman who'd come with her partner all the way from Winchester absolutely nailed the music round (an ingenious identify the movie theme based on the tunes as covered by the festival's resident skiffle band).

So a good time was had by all, and we managed to come out on top by one point.  (we would have won by two, but I allowed my team and my middle aged memory self doubt to shake my conviction that the first Royal Premier had been A Matter of Life and Death - despite, in retrospect, having seen footage of that exact event a mere week before in Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff). 

We won a grab bag of recent release DVD's, which, in a grass is always greener fashion, couldn't have been as good as the runner ups grab bag of "foreign" films.  Unless they were all sub standard actioners produced by Luc Besson, they had to beat the likes of The Hangover and Sex in The City 2, with Made in Dagenham the not terribly high point.  In the battle to be the most polite on the divvy we ended up with Nowhere Boy, a good film, but not one I was desperate to own, and the last disc left which was Public Enemies, a film I absolutely hated, for being thuddingly dull, and abrasively ugly (particularly unforgiveable for a Michael Mann film with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, a real argument against digital videography).  I did cheekily and perhaps ungratefully note on the feedback form, that 1st prize merited a better treasure trove than 2nd.  The arguably better half of the prize was a voucher towards a slap up pizza meal at a local pub favoured by the festival organizers, the tentatively happy upshot was that our impromptu band of usual suspects would have a brief reunion.

My wife set about organizing the meal the way a mother with a socially marginal child might arrange a geeky playdate.  Things began convivially at the pub, it was early on a slow Saturday evening, and our meal party were put on our own in the narrow sidebar area.  We determined which of us were the film obsessives and which were the long suffering other halves.  Backgrounds were traded.  One was a teacher of media studies, another couple had lived in LA for some time in the 70's and had frequented the club where Harry Dean Stanton regularly did music gigs.  For some reason one of them thought I actually worked in the industry, which uncomfortably marked me out as another lifelong wanna be.

Tastes in film became a subject.

Now it should be noted that although I can normally talk about film until the cows wrap for the day, I usually suppress this urge, I don't want to be a film bore.  I have a handful of filmy friends, unfortunately I see infrequently so I can indulge.  Suddenly I was surrounded by reasonably like minded individuals, floodgates opened.  I should further note that, with new acquaintances, especially amongst the British, I tend to be more circumspect, but, though sober, my tongue became more unhinged than a drunken sailor's.

They made the key mistake of asking my opinion.

We'd stumbled upon the customarily divisive topic of screen violence, as the lines that get drawn are so varied and erratic that a Jackson Pollock painting would suffice as a social graph of the phenomenon.  After a pit stop to agree to abhor the Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, we landed on one of my bugbears, Natural Born Killers.

NBK as it was cheesily marketed, is the overrated nadir of Oliver Stone's canon.  It is all too knowingly self-conscious stylized violence serves to make a single point about the collision between America's obsessions with celebrity and serial killers as an expression of our society's desensitization of violence.  A point made over and over again, very very loudly.  It continually uses bravura presentation, camera moves angles and editing akin to cartoons music videos and popular media, to continually wink at the audience, "you're alright with this because we're being so entertaining."  I hate it particularly because for all of Oliver Stone's cleverness, his obvious mastery of the filmic art, he is using it here in the service of a sophomoric, would be satire of such hollowness, that the obviousness of its slim message is lost in the first ten minutes.

Only I probably wasn't that eloquent about it.  I probably said it was an empty movie with one idea that it shouted at the audience repeatedly for its running time.  I couldn't be shaken from this conviction.  There were at least two on the team who clearly felt that NBK was a great film, and they fell back on arguing about its technique.  I probably failed at that moment to express that it is precisely that it is full to the brim with technique, but devoid of value, that makes it a hateful exercise.  Luckily our prize pizzas arrived before it got any more awkward.  Although we hung out chatting in the pub afterwards for a couple of hours, to the point where my brain and throat ran dry, and we had to make our excuses, I still had the feeling I'd broken the bonhomie with my pompous, if correct, ass act.

A few years ago I did half a day of lounging around and shopping in pretty market cathedral town with a friend.  Over lunch she told me that her favourite film was Hook, Speilberg's exercise in displaying all of his and Robin Williams worst excesses.  While time has served to lower our expectations of the latter and appreciate the weak points of the former, at the time it seemed a missed opportunity, galling because it was built around the kernel of a great idea, Peter Pan grows up, but then is forced to go back to Neverland, potentially a dark idea, experience confronts innocence.  Instead we got Dustin Hoffman playing flamboyant (something he should never do), action sequences akin to videogames, and the lost boys skate boarding and playing baseball.  A panto colliding with a theme park ride.  Frustratingly there were moments when the darker possibilities peeked through, but the disappointment has rankled ever since.

Naturally, I was unable to contain my disgust for the film, despite my then friend's obvious affection.  I proceeded to obliterate it.  There was probably a moment when wisdom belatedly prevailed, and I held back, but the damage was done.  It was probably still her favourite film, but I was less than a favourite person.

You would think I'd know better.  There was this guy at uni who'd tagged along when we went to movies, the jerk against whom we'd often profit by comparison.  He loudly complained immediately afterwards how he'd hated Brazil and Blue Velvet, seriously marring the ecstatic bliss I'd entered by the end of each of those films.  The rest had all loved them, but he wouldn't shut up.  I came close to punching the guy.

I developed a terseness immediately after seeing a film with friends, not wanting to spoil that post coital glow from a film well enjoyed, even if I'd felt differently.  You put out feelers towards a consensus, relief when you realize agreement, you aren't alone in your reaction.  In the cold light of day, I will happily scrap over opinions of films.  I am a relativist most of the time, I know when some of my favorites are "not for every one", or "an acquired taste".  I'll proseletize for films I love, but won't budge on those I hate.

Personal taste is something I guard quite jealously.  Good taste, which everyone believes they have, is all you have.  They can take everything else away from you.   But however well argued your stance may be, when you are trying to disabuse people of what they love, you are on a hiding to nothing.  There are only three possible outcomes:
  1. They will just punch you, if you’re lucky.
  2. They will resist your every salient and carefully crafted point.
    They will think you’re an asshole.
  3. They will concede your well presented and thought out argument.  They will acknowledge the folly of their opinion, the depths of the flaws in their devotion to, as you most kindly put it, “that piece of shit” and how badly their championing of “that cinematic turd” reflects upon them.
    They will hate you forever for robbing them of what they love.
 There are some arguments you just don’t want to win.

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