Trash Talk

Responding to a Salon article taking pot shots at classic movies.

My friend Matt Dessem, who knows a lot more about movies than I do, linked to an article by another Matt (whether he knows more about movies than I do is likely, but I’m not yet convinced), Zoller Seitz on Salon.com. It’s called “Trash Talking Nine Classic Movies”, although the URL “Movie Heresy Slide Show” is a lot more compelling. He chooses ten movies (the first two Godfathers are counted as one) that are critically acclaimed and/or extremely popular, some of which he loves, and either points out a fatal flaw or claims he just doesn’t get the appeal.

He also encourages discussion. I’m inferring he was hoping for discussion in the comments section, but I’m paying for a blog and I’ll damn well use it. I’m not going to spend a lot of time recapping his points, so I suggest going through the slideshow first. (Also, there are spoilers in here, but seriously: if you haven’t seen these movies by now, it’s kind of your own fault).

Where He’s Wrong

To start with, here’s where I disagree.

The Silence of the Lambs
I completely disagree with his take. For one thing, you can’t blame a movie for the actions of its sequels, or even for its source material. I happen to think that The Silence of the Lambs is one of the best examples of how to adapt a book to a movie, since the book and movie are roughly equal in quality — I’d say the movie is a bit better — and each one best uses the strengths of its medium. (What’s scariest in the book isn’t scariest in the movie, and vice versa, and because each knew what kind of scares it was best at delivering). However, everything after that is just plain awful. Hannibal was such a loathsome book that I never bothered watching the movie, so bad in fact that I lost interest in the whole franchise. But that doesn’t change the fact that Silence of the Lambs still holds up, any more than Silence of the Lambs automatically made Red Dragon and Manhunter more than simply mediocre.

To his main point, though: one of the most remarkable things about Silence of the Lambs is that they deliberately avoided making Hannibal Lecter an antihero. The scenes with him and Clarice are straight-up traumatic, and it’s key to the whole tone of the movie: she’s entered a world of unrelenting awfulness. And even the final scene avoids turning Lecter into an antihero — actually, the movie does a much better job at this than the book. The key to the final scene isn’t that Lecter escapes, it’s that he calls Clarice. It’s not “look how cool he is,” it’s “oh shit she’s opened Pandora’s Box, and she knows it.” Her whole story is about her being surrounded by evil without getting stained by it herself, that’s why the shot where she and Lecter first touch stands out as so electric even with so many other horrible scenes fighting for your repulsion. Now of course, the sequel basically takes that great concept and then shits all over it, turning Lecter into an over the top anti-hero and Starling into basically an idiot, but that’s something that’s most definitely not present in Silence of the Lambs.

District 9
I don’t know if I’d put it on the same level as the other “classics” in the list, but I liked District 9 a lot. The whole reason it worked wasn’t even its plot or subject matter as much as its presentation: it felt like an independent production, and it deftly side-stepped being predictable or formulaic any chance it got. Starting with the setting: sure, South Africa is the obvious setting for a parable about apartheid, but then, how many science fiction movies have been set in South Africa? And the main character: he stays pretty much an unredeemable bastard long past the breaking point, when lesser movies would have had him repent. Plus, the overall tone is unconventional: if you expect it to be an action movie, you’ll be surprised at how much time it spends on character development. And if you’re expecting a message movie, you’ll be surprised at a guy in a mech suit doing a one-handed catch of a missile, which remains awesome.

Pulp Fiction
Actually I mostly agree with his take, but the whole bit that doesn’t work for me is Bruce Willis’s story. Especially the scenes with his dull, dull girlfriend in the hotel room. They could’ve taken him completely out of the movie and not lost anything, I think. And yeah, Quentin Tarantino’s scenes are just awful, but you don’t need to be a professional film critic to realize that.

To Kill a Mockingbird
His complaint here is just bizarre. “A fine lesson if you’re devout, but what if you’re not?” Then this movie is not for you. It’s a morality story, almost a parable. There’s no place nor need for shades of gray here. Why not let a good message movie just deliver a good message?

Where I’m Right

And here are a few movies that I love except for one thing, or movies that have near-universal acclaim but I just don’t get the appeal.

Up
Still my favorite Pixar movie, but I still hate how the villain was handled. He just turned too evil too quickly.

On the Waterfront and Breathless
I’m lumping these together not because they have much in common, but because I’ve already talked about them on this blog. Each is almost universally hailed as a classic, but I thought both were boring and relatively pointless. I’m assuming they were remarkable in their time, and just don’t work as well out of context. But I still fail to understand how Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront became so iconic, because there’s just nothing all that remarkable about it.

Primer
This one isn’t nearly as well-known as the others, but it’s mentioned in Zoller Seitz’s article. I’ve had it recommended to me several times as being excellent, intelligent, intricately plotted, a real mind-bender, etc. I’ve never heard a bad review from someone who’s seen it. But I hated it. I thought it was pondering and dry, and the set-up was too contrived to be interesting (it’s about the most boring form of time travel imaginable). Plus, I usually try to give low-budget movies a pass, but here, the lack of money just seemed glaring.

Inception
While I’m thinking about “mind-bending” movies, I’ve got to mention Inception again. Because I liked it fine after I saw it, but I’m growing to hate it the more I read about it. I just don’t get why everyone is making such a big deal about how mind-expanding it was. Sure, it’s impressive how meticulously planned and plotted the whole movie is, but it’s just plain not confusing. My biggest problem with it, in fact, is that it was so afraid of letting the audience be confused for one second, that everything is over-explained.

And also: the bit about the theme music mirroring La Vie en Rose? So what? The music is a relentlessly ponderous dirge, just like the beginning of an old French pop song. There have been plenty of clever things done with movie music before, and they didn’t make you leave the theater feeling like you’d been beaten about the head and neck for the past two hours.

Chinatown and Full Metal Jacket
Both are fine movies, I just don’t get why they’re so widely regarded as classics. Each has iconic moments, sure. But Full Metal Jacket basically falls apart after boot camp; I doubt I could tell you one thing that happens once they actually get to Vietnam, even though I’m pretty sure that’s where all the meaning of the movie is stored. And Chinatown seems like such a straightforward detective story, that every time I hear it described as one of the best screenplays ever written, I just have to nod in an attempt to keep the conversation from going on any longer.

And that’s probably more than enough negativity for one blog post.

5 thoughts on “Trash Talk”

  1. Wow, he has a completely different view of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from what I have. I don’t see how he describes the “good” characters as paragons while the “bad” characters are pure evil. For one thing, there are plenty of “good” people, like Walter Cunningham, who are bigots that would’ve lynched Robinson and definitely attacked, if not outright killed, Atticus. Ewell isn’t “evil” for being a bigot, he’s “evil” for being an abusive drunk. Heck, even Atticus is bigoted, as evidenced by his dismissing women from holding places on juries as ridiculous.

    I feel that the story isn’t some Civil Rights inspired cautionary tale so much as an apology for the Whites in the South. The Black characters are nowhere near as defined as any of the White characters are, and mostly they exist to show how White people feel about them. Harper Lee was showing how White people were effected by racism; how it turned otherwise decent people into mob members willing to kill a man for daring to feel sorry for a White girl.

    It is not a book that says, “Don’t be a bigot, because the person you’re being bigoted toward might turn out to be a saint.”, but that bigots are Humans, too. Humans that sometimes do things they would not normally do out of fear and frustration, and that doing evil things doesn’t mean they don’t have any good in them, and if there is some good in them perhaps there is hope. If someone is a bigot calling them “evil” isn’t going to change how they see things. You’ve got to trust there’s decency in them somewhere and call out to that, like when Scout talks to Cunningham about his son the night of the mob.

    It’s also a book about how people are marginalized by society, not just the Blacks in the shanty town, but anyone not quite “right” like Boo Radley, Dill, the Ewell children and even Scout herself who is penalized by her teacher for being too advanced. It’s a book that’s about learning to accept and understand others for your own benefit. It shows how bigotry hurts not just the victim of racism but the bigots themselves.

  2. Oh, and for “Up”, as soon as I saw the first five minutes on my teeny airplane screen, what with the waving fist and “I’ll show you all!” speech I said, “Oh no … they’re not going to make Spencer-Tracy-Explorer-Guy the villain are they? He’s going to be like, 97 … !”. I checked in on my brother’s screen at the end of the film and yep, there he was!

  3. Good stuff. More to say about this but two prelminary thoughts:

    1. Matt Zoller Seitz is always worth reading, but the best thing he’s done are these video essays that pretty much obviate dvd commentary tracks. Here’s one about Wes Anderson: http://bit.ly/kNFzB (to get the video to play, click the link below the picture on the right). Apparently, Criterion is going to include one of his video essays on their DVD of the Darjeeling Limited.

    2. The Chinatown-as-best-screenplay-ever thing is one of those statements that somehow became conventional wisdom without anyone ever defending it, but here’s a defense: http://nyti.ms/bCI1GS

    Basically, I think you’re underestimating how much the protagonists in noir films typically accomplish. (And even in a “good intenton” movie like The Third Man, Harry Lime dies. In the Polanski/Towne version, Harry would shoot Anna in the stomach and the doctors would give her Harry’s penicillin). Also — the visual puns on Evelyn’s eye are all in the screenplay, down to which tailight gets smashed. There aren’t many screenwriters who poke their head into the narrative like that (the model would be Nabokov’s “travesties of familial feeling” in Lolita), and I can’t think of anyone who did it that gracefully (and for such a sick joke). Hope that makes sense; Chinatown isn’t my favorite film, or even my favorite Polanski film, but I see what people see in it.

    The screenplay itself is here as a PDF: http://bit.ly/9JdxQh

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