When I don’t love a movie

Some of you know that I’m trying to improve my film fluency, with the help of my local library. I’m 1/3 of the way through the Criterion Collection right now, and I hope to reach the halfway point before 2010. Just about every movie I’ve seen so far has something striking about it, but I’d be lying if I said they were all classics. This makes film-screening feel like an obligation at times.

So when I do have a reputed classic in my hands, I get pretty excited. Yesterday it was time for Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s calling card to Western audiences. This film, which couches three intertwined allegories in medieval Japan, regularly lands on critic top ten lists. But I was disappointed.

The film features many breathtaking set-pieces: a river journey through fog, supernatural outbursts, and superbly blended dissolves. But it failed to bowl me over. Or maybe I should say I failed it.

Let’s assume I’m in the wrong*, because that’s the most logical explanation. But there are so many different ways I could be wrong! Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

*This is one of my Rules To Live By. Sadly, I can’t recommend it to anyone else, because I am, after all, In the Wrong.

1. I don’t know enough about Japan. This applies to both medieval Japan and the 1953 vintage. It’s undoubtedly true that I’m lacking some crucial pieces of information (here are just some of the Japanese things I know I don’t know: feudalism, traditional gender relations, the occupation experience post-WWII, ghost stories). The film would definitely be more colorful if I could discern these shades. But I’m pretty sure that the critics in Venice, who awarded the film a Silver Lion, probably lacked most of these contextual clues as well. What did they see that I can’t?

A similar problem might be my inability to understand Japanese language, body language, facial expressions, and acting styles–something that may inhibit my appreciation to a much larger degree than it does with films from Europe. Apparently the two leads in Ugetsu are putting in all-time great performances, but I couldn’t tell. But I like plenty of other Japanese films and performances, so I doubt this is the problem.

2. The film’s influence is so widespread that its innovations are impossible to recognize. I get the impression, from Phillip Lopate’s accompanying essay, that Mizoguchi could not possibly be more of an auteur–he convinced his crew to move a house in order to improve a shot’s composition. Again, I could see this being the case, but the things I recognize as commonplace in the film–intersecting plots, some of the spoilery details of the ghost story, some flamboyant shooting–seem to have been around in film much earlier.* And again, let me stress, I think several scenes are classic. But the whole doesn’t hang together very well for me.

*There’s always the possibility, given my incomplete knowledge of film history, that there’s some convergent evolution going on here–Japanese filmmakers coming up with the same innovations celebrated in European and American film, without the benefit of having seen those other films, but I would have to know a whole lot more about international distribution to be sure. My guess is that films got to Japan pretty early, but even if they didn’t, they certainly would be around by occupation. My second guess is that Japanese film didn’t really hit foreign shores until films like this. So some of the initial praise could be of the racist “we didn’t know they could do this” variety.

3. I haven’t learned yet how to get the most out of watching a film. Just like football statisticians and announcers, I bet professional movie watchers, critics and cinemaniacs, have developed perceptual strategies to help them mine a film for information. It often takes me several viewings to really understand a film. I have a hard time explaining why I love the films I do, which makes me a pretty muddled cineaste. It’s weird to say I don’t like this film yet because it’s too early for me to like it, but that may be the case.

Of course, if I accept this line of thinking, what keeps me from applying it to every movie I don’t love? Maybe I just need to give Gigli some more time, a few more viewings, and then it will seem like a genuine cinematic achievement!

4. There’s no accounting for taste, and mine just doesn’t mesh perfectly with the film canon. This has the air of Occam’s Razor about it. Without dipping into Kant, Bourdieu, or Carl Wilson, I have to believe that the effort of accounting for taste is important, even if it is Quixotic. The journey provides.

With some reservations, I’m going to have to choose option #3. I’m sure I’ll return to this issue in a later post. For now, though, I’d like to hear from you. What goes through your head when you find yourself on the opposite side of overwhelming critical opinion?

2 Responses to “When I don’t love a movie”

  1. 1 Ben Beard January 15, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Hi, Luke.

    Here’s my best and worst of the decade. Let me know what you think:

    Ben’s Best films of the decade:

    1. Army of Shadows (2006)
    2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
    3. The Lives of Others (2006)
    4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
    5. Zodiac (2007)
    6. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

    7. City of God (2002)
    8. Wall-E (2008)
    9. Capturing the Freidmans/Fog of War/Bowling for Columbine (2003)
    10. In the Mood for Love (2001)
    11. The Host (2006)
    12. Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
    13. Best of Youth (2003)
    14. Amorres Perros (2000)
    15. Donnie Darko (2001)
    16. Cache (2005)
    17. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) A great film. From Canada. It can happen.
    18. Barbarian Invasions (2003)
    19. Dogville (2003)
    20. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

    Ben’s Honorable Mention:

    Good Shepherd
    Mulholland Drive
    Pan’s Labyrinth
    The Proposition
    Inglorious Basterds
    Royal Tannenbaums
    Wonder Boys
    Wolf Creek
    Billy Elliot
    Nicholas Nickleby
    In the Loop
    Sexy Beast
    The Pianist
    Talk to Her/Bad Education/Volver
    The Battle for Algiers

    Ben’s worst of the decade:

    Up in the Air—Offensively banal.
    Babel—ambitious, overrated, and boring. The mighty have fallen.
    Charlie’s Angels II—Well, the title sort of explains itself.
    Ladykillers—A horrible idea for a remake gone horribly wrong.
    The Mist—A schlocky conceit taking itself waaay to seriously.
    The Patriot—Jingoistic and vacuous. A waste of three hours of my life.
    Planet of the Apes—Ridiculous, empty-headed drivel.
    Sin City—vile, foul, cruel, repugnant stuff.
    Van Helsing—bloated, bug-eyed and bombastic.
    The Curious case of Benjamin Button—A major misstep for everyone involved.
    Crash—Condescending and self-congratulatory. Smug, preachy. Gives liberals a bad name.
    V for Vendetta—Amateurish and self-important.
    The Informant!—trifling, tacky tripe.

  2. 2 againstacedia January 16, 2010 at 5:27 am


    I tried to come up with a best-of-decade list for movies, but then I realized I simply haven’t seen enough to feel qualified. I definitely have strong positive feelings about In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Drive, Talk To Her, Capturing the Friedmans, City of God, There Will Be Blood, My Winnipeg, and A Christmas Tale, and I have an affection for entertaining also-rans Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz, Mean Girls, The Dark Knight, & Adaptation.

    I feel like Inglourious Basterds and Army of Shadows are weirdly similar. They’re both works from directors who usually chronicle the criminal class, and they translate the tropes of those films into the war genre. I don’t want to belabor the comparison, though.

    Don’t have a worst list, luckily.

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