Celluloid Atrocities March 2015: Slow-Burn Cinema

CA_MAR_15_75Why do distributors of somewhat more challenging cinema feel like they have to hit you with their tougher films when you won’t be able to give them the steeping time they deserve?

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Given that I’m writing this column less than one week after the Oscar broadcast, I, like so many others in the film industry (and out of it, for that matter), am suffering from awards fatigue. This is an inevitability, if only for the constant that no one is ever happy with every winner—it’s never the movies that actually deserve to win. This ties directly into another facet of awards season that I get increasingly tired of: the (at least perceived, but maybe actual) short-term memory of awards voters. This is best exemplified by the hubbub regarding all of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s tied-for-highest nine nominations (and four wins), which had everyone shocked that the Academy could even remember the thing, given that it went into general release “way back” in March. To wit, six of the eight Best Picture nominees were released in the fourth quarter, a slot preferred by awards contenders so that they’re fresh in voters’ memories come voting time.

From my perspective, the best movies of any given year are the movies that you don’t necessarily recognize as such right away. Given the option, I’ll always take the movie that I don’t know what to make of the first time I see it, only to think about it and talk about it and write about it for months afterward, and eventually recognize it as the masterpiece that it is, over the film that you watch once, enjoy, and never watch again. With that in mind, were I a member of the Academy I would have wholeheartedly voted for Boyhood for Best Picture, though the first time I saw it I didn’t like it nearly as much as I eventually came to like it. This phenomenon applies to many of my favorite movies from the past few years: Inside Llewyn Davis, Poetry, and Three Times, to name just a few, are all films that I just adore now, but wasn’t entirely sure how I felt immediately after first seeing them.

Film critics generally are wont to admit that they were wrong, and while I’m mostly the same way, I often find myself mentally rewriting my year-end top ten lists for years after I actually wrote them. In 2013 one of the last films I saw before writing that year’s list was The Wolf of Wall Street, which I thought great but flawed the first time I saw it, but in the 14 months since that first screening I’ve been amazed at how well it has stayed in my subconscious, and how well it holds up to repeat viewings—surely it deserves a higher spot on my 2013 list than the #8 that I gave it? As for 2014, the CA_MAR_15_300film I most underestimated was Inherent Vice, which is odd, given my professed adoration of Paul Thomas Anderson and my pre-existing love for the author of the source material, Thomas Pynchon (indeed, I was a fan of the source novel from years prior to PTA’s announcement that he was making a film out of it). Inherent Vice is up there with Boyhood in terms of how little I recognized its staying power upon first viewing (though I certainly did like both films a lot from the outset), and had it been released a few months prior to my writing my 2014 list it surely would have ended up higher than #10. And with this in mind, why do awards voters so value what’s freshest in their memory? And why do distributors of somewhat more challenging cinema feel like they have to hit you with their tougher films when you won’t be able to give them the steeping time they deserve?

For a slightly weightier example, on my (unpublished) Top Ten Films of 2001 list, I ranked Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love the third-best film of the year, behind Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Eight years after writing the 2001 list I wrote a comprehensive Top Ten Films of the Decade (2000-2009) list, upon which In the Mood for Love came in at #1, and Ghost World and Waking Life didn’t even place (though I do still love both of those films).

This predicament extends back throughout my whole movie-going life. The first time I saw John Waters’ Pink Flamingos I was 16 or 17 years old, and, while I thought it was hilarious, I didn’t expect to ever watch it again. Now, I’d have a hard time guessing just how many times I have watched it—a dozen times? Two dozen? More? I was close to the same age before I saw my first film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Vivre sa vie, and unlike Pink Flamingos, I didn’t much like that one at all—I didn’t hate it, but found it wholly forgettable. But in the years since I’ve devoured every Godard film I could get my hands on, and were you to ask me today to name my three all-time favorite directors Godard would surely be one of them, and Vivre sa vie’s lead actress, Anna Karina, is my all-time favorite actress. And, of course, I adore Vivre sa vie itself now, and don’t begin to understand why I didn’t like it that first time, apart from just being an obstinate youth and not having very good context for it. (Though it seems worth mentioning that I did already like challenging foreign films at that age, and was a particular fan of political Eastern European cinema.)

It isn’t even always challenging movies that fall into this trap; just as often it will be a relatively straightforward, often even mainstream, film. A recent example is The Spectacular Now, which upon first viewing seemed to deliberately be channeling something along the lines of Say Anything…, with star Miles Teller especially making a play for John Cusask territory. Even before my second viewing of it I’d changed my mind about it, though, and now I think it’s one of the best and realest teen romances of recent memory. To take a different Teller film (and one of this year’s Oscar heavies) as another example, CA_MAR_15_350the one and only time I’ve seen Whiplash as of this writing left me not hating it, but somewhat underwhelmed. After its Sundance premiere in January 2014 I spent about nine months hearing how great it was before actually getting to see it for the first time, which situation it very hard for any film to live up to. Already my memory is starting to soften on it, and I expect that, once the hype has died down a little more, I will revisit it and enjoy it much more than I did the first time around.

The situation exemplified by Whiplash above is the silver lining to my grouse from early in this column about Oscar nominees coming late in the year—in at least some cases, with films like Whiplash and Foxcatcher (a film I didn’t like and don’t expect to come around on, fwiw), people in the industry see them well before awards season, in film festivals such as Sundance and Cannes. Regardless, that doesn’t change my opinion / the provable fact that the best films tend to need some age before you can see just how great they are (to take much-cited examples, both Citizen Kane and Vertigo were underperformers upon their initial release). I’d love it if I and those like me would learn to stop fetishizing knee-jerk reactions made minutes after viewing a film for the first time in favor of a deeper appreciation of films we’ve slowly become acquainted with over a period of months or years. | Pete Timmermann

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