The Movie Club

I Like Films Where Nothing Happens, but That Doesn't Mean I Like Somewhere
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2011 1:00 PM

The Movie Club

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Still from Somewhere. Click image to expand.
Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in Somewhere 

Dear Matt, Karina, Dan, Stephanie, and readers:

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Since Karina and Matt both mentioned a resistance to year-end lists, I'll stay on the meta-critical plane just long enough to say this: I understand the appeal of lists as bull-session chits, points of departure for discussion, and, of course, link-bait. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful about my awesome job, I'll say that I actively dislike compiling and writing lists. The culture of criticism—and, more generally, of consuming and appreciating film—is already so stratified and status-conscious. In practice, lists are anything but lists: They're badges, gauntlets, manifestos, masks. We're all familiar with this function of cultural taste as an identity marker that establishes one's place in some hierarchy of prestige or another. Carl Wilson's great book Let's Talk About Love, which I can't seem to stop mentioning since reading it a few years ago, dismantles this phenomenon with amazing concision.

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Let's take it as a given that lists are there to be shared, debated, puzzled over, and then shredded into New Year's confetti. And, in response to something Matt wrote yesterday: The notion that these year-end lineups are ephemeral, that some of the movies on them might not matter in a decade either to the culture or to the author, bothers me not a bit. Years later, there is always something inscrutable about our past loves.

Dan, your flowchart leaves me speechless with joy. But it does nothing to change my opinion of Black Swan, which may just be one of those licorice movies that people either love or hate. Between the subject matter and the Grand Guignol approach, I still can't quite believe that movie didn't hold me. But I'll just have to acknowledge that one man's drink is another man's poison—and look forward to seeing the maternity gown that I hope the Mulleavy sisters (whose line, Rodarte, created the film's exquisite dance costumes) will be designing for Natalie to wear at the Oscars.

And Matt: That genius Inception button you link to—the one that allows you to summon at will a single, ear-shattering power chord from that movie's relentless Hans Zimmer score—answers your own question about Nolan's film. Even when it came out last summer, Inceptionwas more a series of sensations than a movie—the filmic equivalent of an interactive haunted house where you're blindfolded and someone thrusts your hand into a bowl of peeled-grape "eyeballs." Six months later, all that remainsare the sensations, which is why the Hans Zimmer button brings the entire Inception experience back in a single BrAAAAAHMMMM.

That said, there's no question Inception was an experience, and here we come back to your question about the future of theatrical movie viewing in actual theaters. The ponderous of-the-moment blockbusters that critics disdain and audiences enjoy tend to be movies whose effectdepends on being seen in the theater—have any of you tried watching Avatar or Inception or The Dark Knight or The Matrix on DVD? These are movies that, whatever their strengths or weaknesses, give the audience a sense of being plunged into a different world than we lived in before the lights went down. So, although I found Inception a not-smart-enough film of ideas that was wildly overpraised by some, I appreciated its pugnacious insistence—BrAAAAAHMMMM—that we gather together and sit down in the dark and watch it.

I promised in the previous round that we'd get to Somewhere, so here goes. Somewhere, to me, was a lovingly crafted, impeccably acted, but vanishingly slight little movie. It was the work of a promising filmmaker, not yet an accomplished one. I've already talked at length about what didn't work for me in Somewhere both in my review and in a podcast discussion; what I'd like to consider here has to do with the reception of the movie.

I've noticed that, whenever I say in a public forum that I didn't love Somewhere, some critic or reader helpfully swoops in to inform me that, you know what, not every movie has to be a traditional Hollywood three-act narrative. Apparently there exists a whole tradition of films that are quiet and minimalist and subtle, films in which almost nothing (according to the crass plot-based formula I apparently subscribe to) "happens"! This is edifying for me, because in 30 years of cinema fandom I have never heard of or enjoyed anything by Bresson, Antonioni, Ophuls, or Ozu. Dude, I was thrilling to Ozu's deployment of silence when some of these patient explainers were still trying to unwrap their Bazooka bubble gum. I get what Sofia Coppola was trying to do in Somewhere—the problem, if anything, is that I get it at times to an eye-rolling "I get it!" degree.

Stephanie, I know you won't take that tack, because you're not a condescending jerk. Show me how to love Somewhere the way you do, not just in brief, luminous moments but as an aesthetic whole. I wasn't kidding when I kicked off my review by saying that I want to be one of those people who loves Sofia Coppola. Not just because so many of the cool kids do (you, Karina, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert), but because, when I sit down to just about any movie, that's all I'm hoping for: to be swept away by love.

Dana

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